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Presidential Hopeful John McAfee Talks Cybersecurity

When it comes to eccentric personalities and checkered pasts, Donald Trump has nothing on John McAfee.
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When it comes to eccentric personalities and colorful pasts, Donald Trump has nothing on John McAfee.

The anti-virus software pioneer built a compound in the jungles of Belize, put a gun to his head in front of a visiting Wired reporter, and now wants your vote to become the next president of the United States.

He might not be anywhere near the front of the polls. But he is the only candidate with extensive cybersecurity experience, a topic that has become more important as hackers infiltrate major U.S. companies and government agencies.

McAfee made a fortune from his former company, McAfee Associates, which was bought by Intel in 2010. He lost a healthy chunk of that money in the 2008 crash, then made headlines when he fled Belize after authorities wanted to question him over the murder of his neighbor.

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McAfee was later arrested in Guatemala and deported back to the United States.

When asked whether his past would turn off voters, McAfee remained defiant.

"Because I'm like the people?" McAfee told NBC News. "Because I'm honest and recognize my mistakes? I don't think so."

McAfee is running as the candidate for the Cyber Party, which he created. While he has created rough outlines for his policies on everything from the economy to foreign policy, the bread-and-butter of his platform centers around cybersecurity.

On China

Hackers in China have been blamed by U.S. officials for a plethora of cyber attacks, from the Anthem hack to the security breach in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that affected more than 21 million people.

President Obama has called the attacks "not acceptable," but stopped short of imposing sanctions on China, instead forging agreements to ban hacking for commercial gain.

McAfee, on the other hand, would declare the cyber attacks an act of war.

"An act of war is something that focuses and makes a society act in unison," he told NBC News. "It took the bombing in Pearl Harbor to make Americans notice the war. When an entire Pacific fleet was sunk, we all woke up."

"We just need to declare, 'My god, China just waged war on us.' We then would have all been watching the TV just like we did after the attack in Paris. We would have woken up."

On forging cyber weapons

"The next war, I truly believe, will be a cyber war, and it will be devastating. And the Chinese are so far ahead of us," McAfee told NBC News.

McAfee would create a Digital Transformation Office to not only bolster the nation's defenses, but also create cyber weapons. (The office would be funded, in part, by the money saved from completely dismantling the Transportation Security Administration).

"In order to protect yourself, you need to have offensive capabilities," he said. "What would happen if we didn't have nuclear weapons during the Cold War? We would all be speaking Russian. The fact that we did have them was a deterrent. If we had weaponized software to the level that China has, they would back off."

Related: Why Aren't Presidential Candidates Talking About Cybersecurity?

Those weapons would be able to covertly gain access to a system, steal and alter information, and even infect facilities like power plants. He posed a hypothetical scenario where Chinese hackers gained access to the Tennessee Valley Authority and raised the temperature in power plants by 20 degrees.

"What is it going to do? It's going to fry a lot of components. The next thing we know, we're without power, and possibly without power permanently."

On the need for the president to be a cybersecurity expert

"Our leadership is illiterate when it comes to technology," he said. "Would you vote for a president who said, 'I can't read or write, but I have advisers who can explain words to me?' You wouldn't."

On the nation's current level of cybersecurity

"In the government, I'd say it's two out of 10," McAfee told NBC News. "In corporate America, I'd say it's a five."

The answer for the government, he said, was to hire "red" and "blue" team hackers to attempt to break into and secure its systems, as some companies do today.

"Our private sector is ill-prepared, but at least they are taking measures to protect themselves," he said.

The problem, according to McAfee, is that the U.S. government is reluctant to hire hackers. He would make them part of his new Digital Transformation Office, their salaries paid in part by that now free TSA money.

"You have to reach out to the hacker community, which have been blackballed and labeled by the government as an evil force," he said. "No, they're not. They're our only hope."

On encryption 'back doors'

Recently, the possibility that terrorists have used encrypted messaging apps to communicate has spurred calls by intelligence officials to create "back doors" that would give them special access. Some in the tech industry claim it's impossible to do that without making the apps vulnerable to hackers.

McAfee said that officials like FBI Director James Comey don't understand that building a so-called "back door" into existing messaging apps won't stop terrorists from using encryption.

"You can call someone on the phone in India and for $10,000 get an app. Then you can develop your own encryption — it's the easiest thing to create," he said. "You don't think ISIS can create their own encryption? Nonsense."

Like Lawrence Lessig, the Democratic candidate who dropped out of the race after trying to raise awareness surrounding the issue of campaign finance reform, McAfee hopes to shine a spotlight on cybersecurity — although he maintains that he has a chance to win.

"This summer, I'll come out and I'll be loud and I'll be vocal," he said. "I believe people will listen. And if not, maybe it will change the public dialogue between everyone else."