FORGIVE the public if claims by John McAfee, the eponymous founder of an anti-virus software company which he left long ago, may be received with a whiff of incredulity. The claims are bold. On September 30th, at the C2SV tech shindig in San Jose, Mr McAfee said another company he has founded, Future Tense, will release a hardware device called D-Central that will leave users invulnerable to snooping by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) or its counterparts in other countries. More improbably still, it will cost around $100.
To start with, the gear will reportedly produce a wireless signal that will stretch to a radius of three blocks in a city (perhaps 200-300 metres), or reach as far as 400 metres (¼ mile) if the receiver and transmitter are in a line of sight. It will be compatible with existing smartphones, tablets and computers. And it will use a bespoke encryption protocol. Prototypes should be ready in six months.
The device is intended to be a portable hub that acts as a private hotspot to connect security-minded types who want to exchange messages or files. Anyone will be able to connect for encrypted file-swapping; users with extra privileges will be able to chat. The system will also act as a virtual private network (VPN) “concentrator”, capable of creating an encrypted tunnel across the internet to another D-Central box or network of boxes. Mr McAfee says the device will record no information and will even regularly change its unique network identifier—something typically burned into hardware—to another random designation, to prevent a box from being tapped over time as it moves about.
Though Mr McAfee didn’t state that explicitly, in order to work with exisitng devices, the kit will presumably rely on Wi-Fi. No other wireless method is both cheap and compatible. Standard Wi-Fi encryption, called WPA2, used to secure a connection between a device and a router is still believed to be impregnable, but Mr McAfee’s services would require client software on each device to run an additional layer of encryption. The range Mr McAfee touts would be difficult to provide in a battery-powered $100 device; it may require a mains connection to operate for longer periods of time. In fact, the range claim are almost certainly exaggerated at least by a factor of two. (Admittedly, most Wi-Fi-router-makers overegg their wares’ range, too).
Similar kit exists, though not with the capabilities Mr McAfee’s device will purportedly boast. Nor does it come in D-Central’s no-frills form. The PirateBox, for instance, offers private, encrypted, anonymous data interchange using publicly available algorithms and free or open software for those who connect to the same unit. But it must be assembled from various components and configured by users.
Indeed, the announcement would probably have gone unnoticed were it not for the announcer. The colourful Mr McAfee has shown his security and anti-virus chops before. He also has a knack for evading the long arm of the state. He managed, for instance, to elude police in Belize who wanted to question him a neighbour’s murder. He fled and wound up in America, claiming he was being framed for refusing to pay a big bribe. His exploits involved a series of disguises, a “spider hole” dug the sand in which he secreted himself and observed and a dash across Latin America before a magazine covering his flight uploaded a photo without scrubbing embedded GPS co-ordinates that revealed his whereabouts in Guatemala. A rookie mistake, you may say, but not Mr McAfee’s. His new device, if it comes to fruition, may provide others with a virtual analogue of his slippery ways.
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