Published November 16, 2012
Wanted by police in connection with the death of a U.S. citizen in Belize, mega-millionaire John McAfee has spent five days hiding in plain view -- on the phone and online, even turning to chat forums for advice on how to cover his tracks.
McAfee, the former security software mogul who founded the company of the same name, has spent more than five days out of sight chatting on the phone with Joshua Davis, a reporter from Wired magazine. Davis’ Twitter feed has described the sometimes bizarre correspondence between the fugitive, whom the police have been unable to locate.
McAfee on the phone just now: He's still at large. No raid yet.
— Joshua Davis (@JoshuaDavisNow) November 16, 2012
Ira Victor, a security and digital forensics expert with Data Clone Labs in Nevada, says McAfee is smart enough to use an untraceable phone, or an Internet phone that is harder to track.
“[Local law enforcement] may not have the technical chops to easily locate him through electronic means,” Victor told FoxNews.com. “He’s smart enough to be smarter than a lot of members of law enforcement.”
McAfee, who told Wired and other news agencies he was not responsible for the death of Gregory Faull, recently took the time to post a few questions to a Web forum asking for info on exactly how cops can triangulate a cell phone signal and trace his whereabouts, even asking about tracking a phone when it is turned off, according to a report on Gizmodo. U.S. police can certainly do all of that and more, Victor noted.
“I was involved in a case where a teenage girl disappeared. The found her bicycle by the side of the road. We tracked her cellphone calls … and we found the girl.”
There’s another option, however: so-called ‘burner’ phones, those pay-as-you-go models you see at Wal-Mart, drug stores, supermarkets and corner stores everywhere.
If you walk into any Radio Shack store, as FoxNews.com did this past week, you can pay cash for a burner phone, providing nothing but a made-up name for the record books. The phone is completely untraceable -- there’s no way to tie the phone purchase to a specific person.
That means anyone can use them for communication -- and evade the ears of whoever is trying to listen in.
In another high-profile case, Paula Broadwell, the biographer (and alleged mistress) of former CIA director David Petraeus, is suspected of making harassing phone calls to Jill Kelley, a Petraeus family friend who broke the case.
Petraeus and Broadwell used Gmail accounts with fake names and left unsent messages in shared draft folders to keep their secrets, according to the ACLU -- to no avail. Burner phones would have been less traceable.
“There is no human identification. You can buy these phones for cash,” says cyber-security expert and book author Winn Schwartau, the CEO of Security Experts.
According to Schwartau, it’s incredibly easy to anonymize phone calls using pay-as-you-go models from Cricket, TracFone, Virgin Mobile, and many others. Schwartau says a person can easily place calls on a burner phone and then discard it without leaving any clues for law enforcement, a private investigator -- or a suspicious spouse.
Another trick: McAfee, Broadwell or anyone seeking to keep their conversation and whereabouts secure could use a personal VPN (or virtual private network) that anonymizes their location. Any time you use a computer, your location can be tracked using an IP address. An anonymizer tricks the local Web server into thinking you are not in the vicinity, hiding your location.
And as you might expect, there’s even an iPhone app, called – predictably – Burner. By punching in an anonymizer, you can create a temporary phone number that is harder to trace.
“The appeal of burner phones is actually quite legitimate -- it allows people to make calls or be reachable without giving up their privacy,” Greg Cohn, the creator of the Burner app, told FoxNews.com. “This can include doctors who want to be on call, for example, or artists and musicians and other public-profile people who need to communicate but don't want to be pestered.”
Schwartau says law enforcement can use cellphone triangulation techniques, but that’s not possible with a burner phone. There’s just no way to link the suspect’s identify to one.
So what can be done? Security experts explain that research underway would make it easier to trace a burner phone. These pay-as-you-go models could require that the purchaser use a credit card that ties their identity to the phone, which would help law enforcement trace the signal. Or, burner phones could be placed into a registry that tracks the actual owner’s identity.
For now, criminals, software gurus, and even high-powered government officials can always fall back on such phones to place calls. Such gizmos are impossible to trace -- and, for now, they’re going to keep talking.