Internet tapped for 'parasitic computing'

by Richard Stenger

(CNN) — Siphoning the computational power of the Internet, U.S. scientists have figured out a way to induce unwitting Web servers across the world to perform mathematical calculations.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana solved a complex math pr oblem with the unauthorized help of computers in North America, Europe and Asia.

Using a remote server, the team divided the problem into packages, each associated with a potential answer. The bits were then hidden inside components of the standard transmission control protocol of the Internet, and sent on their merry way.

“We wanted to see if we could make the Web work as a single big computer. If you look carefully, that is not really the case. It’s the sum of many, many computers doing their job. So that was the motivation. But as you can see, we deviated from that somewhat,” said Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, main author of a report the journal Nature will publish Thursday.

The protocol component, called a checksum, is a mathematical procedure undertaken by a receiving computer to check the integrity of incoming information, making sure it had not been corrupted during transmission.

The remote machine forces unaware target computers to solve a piece of a complex computational problem merely by engaging in standard communication, according to Barabasi.

No security violated

The technique resembles the popular SETI@home program, whereby millions of personal computers comb through bits and pieces of radar data to search for evidence of intelligent aliens.

Participants voluntary download the SETI@home software, a screen saver that uses the spare computational power of computers.

But the “parasitic computing” that Barabasi and his colleagues describe requires no downloaded application and works without the knowledge of computer users.

Such online piracy does not violate the security of hapless servers, using only areas specifically earmarked for public access, according to the researchers.

But it could slow the machines down by engaging them in mindless conversation while they unwittingly work for their remote master, Barabasi said.

This particular technique will likely not become commonplace because the effort to make it work is far greater than the possible computational return.

“We are not worried about copycats taking our program,” Barabasi said.

But variations could be engineered to make online piracy much more efficient, he cautioned.

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