Q. I have heard about volunteer computing, but I am wondering how exactly it works and how secure it is. Would my computer be at risk?
A. Volunteer computing involves donating a share of your computer’s unused storage space and processing power to analyze small chunks of research data. The data — which belongs to a larger scientific project — is automatically uploaded and downloaded to your computer by software you install after you sign up to volunteer.
In regards to security, it is possible that hackers could put malware online disguised as volunteer-computing projects or try to compromise an existing project data, so the experience is not entirely risk-free. However, volunteer-computing organizations have put security measures in place to minimize potential risks. If you decide to volunteer, use trusted software from established academic or research institutions.
The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, known casually as BOINC, is probably the best-known volunteer-computing platform out there, and it supports a number of different projects from universities and institutes around the world. A page on the University of California-Berkeley website explains BOINC’s security measures, which include code-signing to help prevent malware from getting onto project servers.
Once you read over the security explanation and decide to proceed, download the BOINC software, install it and then sign up for a project in the program’s settings.
Current BOINC projects include LHC@Home from CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), Rosetta@Home for the University of Washington’s protein-structure project, and Berkeley’s own long-running SETI@Home initiative for analyzing radio telescope data from space. IBM’s World Community Grid for medical and humanitarian research is also offered, and has its own notes on project security.
BOINC is not the only volunteer-computing software around, but it does let you select from multiple projects within its menus. Still, you can easily find other trusted volunteer-computing programs around the web, including Stanford University’s Folding@home project that helps researchers study Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as certain types of cancers.