Citizen science projects utilizing spare computer time

There is a class of science projects where the common citizen can participate by providing spare computer time either through joining a citizen science group’s computer network, or by installing a software, which downloads part of the research problem onto the computer, uses spare computer time to do the necessary calculations, and uploads the results to a central server. An article in the New York Times describes a couple of such projects such as the protein folding effort, Rosetta, as well as the security challenges and points of note in such projects. The link to the article is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/technology/personaltech/donate-your-computers-spare-time-to-science.html?ref=technology&_r=0

 

Typically, a citizen science project is one where the general public can contribute to scientific research usually at the levels of data collection or data analysis. The projects depicted in the above news report fall into either one of these categories. At a more advanced level, there are also capability enablers such as Foldscope, a cardboard based optical microscope that allow people around the world to observe, microscopically, the world around them and uncover new scientific insights. Such projects enabled by Foldscope differs in, running the whole gamut of activities or thinking processes inherent in any research project: i.e., (i) identifying a problem of interest or subject of investigation, (ii) develop a hypothesis or a way to delve deeper into the subject, (iii) design the necessary experiments or observations, (iv) collect the data and analyse them, and finally, (v) report them to the scientific community.

 

Besides the interesting science, the news article outlines several potential computer security risks associated with such citizen science projects that utilize spare computer time to help solve part of a larger puzzle such as protein folding. The most important one is the possibility of downloading a piece of software from a similar looking but false website where hackers had embedded malware into the overall software package for download. In addition, the communication link between the computer and the central server could be hijacked where the computer send the processed data (and maybe other information) to a different server under the control of a botnet. Finally, at the personal privacy level, it is also important for users interested to contribute their spare computer time to a larger goal in science to carefully read the End User License Agreement and Privacy statements of the software before installing them on their computer. In essence, do the necessary background reading and understanding before committing yourself to a citizen science project.

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