The balance of compensation and responsibility relates to distributed computing

Wikipedia defined Distributed computing as “A field of computer science that studies distributed systems. A distributed system is a software system in which components located on networked computers communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages. The components interact with each other in order to achieve a common goal.”

Distributed computing allows effective use of idle computing resources. BONIC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing)  let scientists use it to create their own volunteer computing project and give them computing power of thousands of volunteer CPUs. The DESCHALL Project we read before is also a typical example.

I think the distribution of benefits (“spoils”) about distributed computing  is worth to talk about. According to the website of BONIC, it’s an unpaid volunteer project, so the research achievements are probably only belong to scientists who post the research projects. As for the DESCHALL project, the originator and the owner of the computer that found the solution share the “achievement” (A $10,000 prize. The owner of the computer that found the solution got $4,000, and the originator got $6,000.) In this case, people who participate in this project but didn’t found the solution didn’t get any compensation. Do you think the distributions of benefits are fair in these two cases?

Consider another case, if there’s a distributed computing project involve in criminal activity such as hacking a bank’s account, should the victims sue people who volunteered to participate in this project and they are neither the originator nor the owner of the computer that found the solution? If we won’t sue these people, it seems like we indulge the accomplices. However, if we sue them, it seems not fair to these people because they will only share the responsibility but won’t share the benefits (based on the two real world cases, these kind of people always don’t have any compensation)


BTW, if there’s any grammar mistake or any unclear statement, please let me know. Thanks!

8 Responses to The balance of compensation and responsibility relates to distributed computing

  1. There are definitely some interesting points here. Let me poke at some of them 🙂

    it’s an unpaid volunteer project, so the research achievements are probably only belong to scientists who post the research projects.

    Is this ethical? While I understand that performing research is a complicated thing, it is possible if the person volunteering their time (or their computer’s time) deserves at least partial credit. This would bring more happiness (utility), also as a result, helping our ethical case from a utilitarian perspective.

    Consider another case, if there’s a distributed computing project involve in criminal activity such as hacking a bank’s account, should the victims sue people who volunteered to participate in this project and they are neither the originator nor the owner of the computer that found the solution?

    This definitely raises some ethical issues. Take the high orbit (or low orbit) ion cannon, a tool that can be used en masse to take down a website. When this illegal action happens, who is responsible if there is no central party to blame? Compensating the victims, as you said, becomes very difficult.

    Distributed systems offer many advantages to traditional models. Avoiding placing trust in a central party (whether that be a certificate authority, dns, etc) and using a de-centralized / distributed model can provide a high degree of freedom to the users, giving them back control they may have once had. New technologies like cryptocurruncies and TOR (the onion router) may continue to grow in popularity as a result.

  2. This is a topic that is case-sensitive. Depending on the various cases, there are various outcomes and consequences. With the DESCHALL project, many people were informed about what was going on with the project. The overall prize was $10,000 and the person with the computer that cracks the code gets $4,000. Every single person that contributed to the countless amount of keys, knew that there was a slim chance of them wining the money but they continued to do it either for school pride or the simple fact that it is possible to win the money. People enter contests all the time and know what they are getting themselves into, but the hacking of a bank account is a completely different story.

    When someone loses a contest and doesn’t get a prize then thats just tough luck. But when people ban together to hack a bank account, then it becomes felonious. This is a matter if privacy intrusion and robbery. This is a prime example of the old and new definition of hacking. The old meaning to make a technology do something it has never done before positively, and the new meaning that people are getting unauthorized access to the connection of other people’s stuff. These two cases have no comparison and have two completely different consequences.

  3. I think this is a fairly definite line as to where some form or event of distributed computing takes place. Obviously it was not fair to people who contributed to the DESCHALL project but did not receive compensation and therefore may lower happiness, but by looking at the circumstance it is clear that if the money were distributed to the entirety of the people helping then each person would receive mere pennies. If the $4000 that was originally given to the winner was divided among the thousands of computers participating it would most likely amount to nothing; even if the entire $10000 was divided the participation award would still be minuscule. In fact, two possible situations may have occurred and thus affected the outcome and overall happiness of the people. For one case, if people knew they there was absolutely no chance but receiveing a fraction of the winnings as well as pride for their school this could have drastically reduced the number of participants and possibly resulted in the DESCHALL project being unsuccessful. We would then only be provided with the 58-bit systems that DES provided, and therefore have less overall privacy, thus decreasing overall happiness. By an act utilitarian point of view this would have been morally wrong.

    Now assuming that the division of the winnings didn’t effect the number of participants and that the DESCHALL project did succeed, the happiness of the people participating would have been minute since they only won very little. This is opposed to the one person who found the code’s happiness which would be exponentially greater, as well as all the people who did not win but were just happy to be a part of something so large and meaningful while simultaneously representing their school. By act utilitarianism, it would be immoral to offer everyone part of the winnings if you look at the two examples described.

    Now as far as using distributed computing to do something illegal, this is obviously immoral and anyone involved should be punished to some extent. They had the freedom to choose to be a part of it and should therefore be punished as such, given that their is sufficient proof that they were in fact participating.

  4. CameronSchmidt

    This case seems to boil down to moral luck. Moral luck, which we have gone over in class, is when a significant portion of the act a person is judged for is outside of the person’s control. If we only incriminate the person who owns the computer which guessed the correct key, we are effectively convicting them of the crime of bad luck. This individual did absolutely nothing different than everyone else who participated in the crime – their computer just happened to guess the correct code. As far as I see it, either all of the participants of the botnet are responsible, or none of them are.

    I don’t see anything wrong with rewarding the “lucky” participant, as DESCHALL did, though. Realistically the winner might not deserve the money anymore than any other participant (the logic follows the same is in the criminal case). Regardless, the reward most likely did a lot to motivate people to participate in DESCHALL by running the software on as many computers as possible. When the most someone has to lose is not getting a reward, I don’t think it matters how “fair” it is.

    The DESCHALL project also raises another moral question: was it okay for participants to run the software on thousands of university machines, which they did not solely own? This draws a parallel to a more modern practice, bitcoin mining, which more or less does the same thing as DESCHALL – uses as many CPU cycles as possible in order to crack a hash. I know from personal experience working at OSU that using OSU resources in order to mine bitcoin is considered “wrong” and can result in disciplinary actions.

  5. In terms of my response, the way I see it is that ‘intent’ speaks for itself. The people who participated in the projects that didn’t obtain the solution are still as accountable for the victim’s displeasure as the people who were the primary cause of the criminal activity. As we discussed in class with the example with a professional hacker finding evidence to suggest his client was “intending” on sexually exploiting a minor. We argued whether he should disclose the information in the court of law and we weren’t sure if intention alone was reasonable grounds to disclose his clients other criminal activity.

    The same situation applies here, and although this is coming from a subject relativist perspective, it only seems fair that any intention to inflict harm and cause the overall level of unhappiness to increase should result in lawful action against them as well. Why not prevent an issue from potentially happening rather than waiting for it to happen and then taking action?

    In response to questions raised by people who have commented, I would like to respond to the question relating to whether it was reasonable for DESCHALL to operate on university owned computers. Firstly, if we look at the overall outcome of this action, the CPU’s didn’t necessarily use much computing power to carry out the decryption of the key and it wasn’t as though a bot or worm was installed on the computers involved in the distributed network which would suggest it wasn’t entirely wrong. To do so without permission however, would make this action wrong and moreover, to take advantage of university owned property for personal gain also falls in the actions that would stand to do more harm than good.

  6. In the case of the DESCHALL project, I think the distribution of benefits was fair. For one, the members of DESCHALL project had to provide some incentive for people to actually download the client program. If there was no incentive (the $4000 cash prize for finding the solution) to the download the client program, people would probably not be very inclined to even download the client program in the first place. Therefore the incentive was necessary, and people knew full well that if their machine did not find the solution they would not be given any compensation. It cost these people practically nothing to download the program, and practically nothing to run it in the background, so in a sense it was pretty much a free raffle for anyone who downloaded and installed the program. Therefore, in my opinion, DESCHALL was completely fair in terms of its distribution of benefits.

    For the second case, I believe if people downloaded client software that was used in criminal ways unbeknownst to the people downloading it, then the people should not be prosecuted for it. The original person or group who actually commits the crime should be held completely responsible, because they are the person who actually committed the crime. The way I see it, you don’t prosecute the licensed gun seller who legally sold guns to a man who ends up shooting up a school. This may seem like a stretch, but I think it is comparable in that the actual criminals are using legally obtained resources (the spare CPU cycles), in the same way a shooter is using legally obtained resources (guns and ammunition). Therefore, I think it would be morally wrong to prosecute people who voluntarily download client software that contributes their spare CPU cycles. Now, if people download the client software for intentional and malicious purposes knowing full well the intent of it, then they should also be prosecuted for conspiring with the original criminal.

  7. When it comes to sharing the reward in cases like the DESCHALL project, I personally believe it would have perfectly fine for the originators of the project to keep the reward for themselves. As they did not in any way state that the reward would be split with the owner of the computer that found the code or that the reward would be split with the participants when they started the project and sought help from individuals not directly involved with the creation of the project. Whether or not it was morally right for them to share the reward with the participants or the owner of the computer that found the code is a different story. according to act utilitarianism the happiness of the project creators would be highest if they kept the reward money for themselves. However, if they were to share the reward with everyone that participated the happiness of the project creators would be significantly less as they would get pennies of the total amount of the reward given the sheer number of people who participated in the project and the happiness of those participants wouldn’t be affected because they’d also only be receiving a small fraction of the reward as opposed to receiving nothing at all. Therefore it would be morally right for the creators of the DESCHALL project to keep the money for themselves.

    In the terms of sharing the consequences when the activity being participated in is illegal, there is an NPR talk radio conversation that comes to mind. In this show they were talking about a family who had pressed charges against a man who had been found with child pornography that had one of their children in it. They won the case against him and afterward they sued the man for damages, court costs and fees for therapy. The man did not have enough money to give the family although they had won the suit. So the faimily had the right to find and sue any other known offender who had been found with or downloaded this child pornography to cover the additional costs. (I don’t mean to bring up a bad subject to equate this to but this personifies my thoughts exactly). Now if the supposed offenders had participated in the crime unknowingly, I don’t believe they should share the blame in any way unless their guilt can be proven. A good example of this being a bot or virus on their computer that forced their (or their computers) participation without their authorization. However if the person knowingly engages in the illegal activity that person or persons should be persecuted to the full extent of the law. The case for this according to rule utilitarianism being, everyone should act in accordance with the law and no one should knowingly and willingly engage in illegal activities.

  8. Edillower Wang

    Above all, Thanks for provide such a lot interesting aspects of views, analysis and comments.

    In my aspect of view, I don’t think these three cases are unrelated. In fact, your opinion about each case reflects how much you recognize the importance (value or contribution, I can’t find a word that can generalize these feeling) of the originator, the owner of the computer that found the solution (let’s say the “lucky guy”), and people who participate in the distributed computing project, but they(let’s say the “ordinary people”) are neither the originator nor the owner of the computer that found the solution. I think DESCHALL project did share some prize with the lucky guy is a symbol of the acknowledgement of the lucky guy’s importance (value or contribution).

    First, let’s look at this table. Choose one of them that you think best describe how important the originator, lucky guy, and ordinary people are.

    Do you remember which row you chose?

    Let’s look at the following two tables and match the row.
    Notice that in the following two tables, if you selected No.1 or No.3 in the previous table(the one I asked you to choose a row), you can match your self with either No.1 of table 1 and No.3 of table 2 or No.3 of table 1 and No.1 of table 2, because it still match how you recognize the importance (value or contribution) of three different kinds of people.

    Table 1. Importance X Compensation

    Table 2. Importance X Responsibility (Criminal charge)

    I think for some people, the results of these two tables are different from their attitude on ordinary cases and criminal cases. Because many people think DESCHALL project is fair, but the ordinary people participate in criminal project should be charged. In many similar attitudes like this one, why the recognition of ordinary people’s importance (value or contribution) changed?

    P.S. Some people may doubt that the importance (value or contribution) cannot be connected to the compensation or responsibility, but for me they have a strong connection. The reason why our university awarded Owen a $abc,def,ghi (forget the amount) prize is not they were happy at that day or the weather showed that the winter of Columbus does has an end. The reason is the university recognizes Owen’s importance (value or contribution). Also, the courts give someone a criminal charge, because they recognize this guy’s importance (value or contribution) in the criminal activity.

    I have a question for guys who evaluate DESCHALL project by using utilitarianism. You said if all the people share the prize, the pennies wouldn’t increase the total happiness (may even decrease the total happiness). Is that means if the prize was high enough and everyone could get hundred dollar, they should share the prize?