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Prime Treasure Hunt
The headline shouted, "Hacker accused of using U S West computers on math problem."
The Associated Press news report, dated Sept. 15, went on to describe how computer consultant Aaron Blosser of Lakewood, Colo., had enlisted 2,585 computers at the Denver-based telephone company U S West to search for large prime numbers.
"Blosser's alleged hacking was discovered when computers at U S West's facility in Phoenix, which normally respond in 3 to 5 seconds, took as long as 5 minutes to retrieve telephone numbers," the article noted. That led to an FBI search warrant and an investigation of Blosser for computer fraud.
According to the report, Blosser said, "I've worked on this problem for a long time. When I started working at U S West, all that computational power was just too tempting for me."
But that wasn't the whole story.
What the article didn't say was that Blosser was participating in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS)a huge, collaborative effort involving more than 6,100 teams and individuals worldwide chasing after the record for the largest known prime number (see Another Record Prime, 12/14/96).
Each GIMPS participant installs special software that sifts through an assigned set of numbers, running whenever the computer is otherwise idle (http://www.mersenne.org/prime.htm). A key element underlying that effort is networking software developed by Scott Kurowski of San Jose, Calif., which distributes work to and gathers results from the computers of participants throughout the world via the Internet PrimeNet Server (http://entropia.com/primenet/status.shtml).
It turns out that Blosser wrote his own program for distributing the search software throughout the U S West system. He made a mistake. As a result, thousands of U S West computers tried to reach the PrimeNet server at the same time, causing U S West's network to slow down. At the same time, the computers failed to retrieve assignments to start calculating. Gridlock.
"If this had been properly done, U S West might not have ever been concerned at all," Kurowski insists. "We have a few hundred other businesses supporting the research project without incident."
The research software used for the calculations never steals time from other software, he adds. "It stays out of the way, contacting the entropia.com server for computing assignments and [reporting] results every 10 days or so." Each such connection takes only 3 to 5 seconds.
At this point, Blosser has yet to be charged with a crime, though he is still under investigation.
The incident, however, does illustrate how vulnerable large computer systems can be to both accidental and deliberate misuse.
In the meantime, Kurowski is looking for other scientific computing research projects that can be carried out jointly by large arrays of computers communicating over the Internet. "We've taken distributed supercomputing out of the lab and applied proven Internet technologies and services to it, providing a new class of high-powered, inexpensive research computing solutions," Kurowski says.
Once a project is set up, anyone with a computer can participate, from scientists to schoolchildren.
1998. Hacker accused of using U S West computers on math problem. Available at http://cnn.com/TECH/computing/9809/15/uswest.hacker.ap/index.html.
Hayes, B. 1998. Collective wisdom. American Scientist 86(March-April):118. (Available at http://www.amsci.org/amsci/issues/Comsci98/compsci1998-03.html.)
Morrison, P. 1998. Numbers: Prime or choice? Scientific American (November):124. (Available at http://www.sciam.com/1998/1198issue/1198wonders.html.)
Peterson, I. 1998. Calculating a record prime. Science News 153(Feb. 21):127.
Seife, C. 1998. Prime suspect. New Scientist (Sept. 26):5.
Stroh, M. 1998. Math whizzes primed for hunt. San Jose Mercury News (Nov. 13). (Available at http://www.mercurycenter.com/premium/front/docs/prime13.htm.)
Additional information about the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search can be found at http://www.mersenne.org/prime.htm.
Information about Scott Kurowski's Internet Primenet Server and distributed computing software is available at http://entropia.com.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at email@example.com.
Ivars Peterson is the mathematics/computers writer and online editor at Science News. He is the author of *The Mathematical Tourist, Islands of Truth, Newton's Clock, Fatal Defect, and The Jungles of Randomness. His current work in progress is Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics and Art (to be published in 1999 by Wiley).
NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK: The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari by Ivars Peterson. New York: Wiley, 1998. ISBN 0-471-29587-6. $14.95 US (paper).
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