This chapter discusses the ethics of a proof-of-concept demonstration of “parasitic computing.” A “parasite” computer attempts to solve a complex task by breaking it up into many small components and distributing the processing of these components to remote computers that perform this processing without the knowledge or consent of those owning the remote computing resources. This is achieved through the use of the TCP/IP Internet protocol and, in particular, the checksum function of this protocol. After a discussion of similar exploits, the ethical issues involved in this demonstration are analyzed. The authors argue that harm should be the standard for determining if parasitic computing is unethical. They conclude that a revised notion of the rights of ownership is needed when dealing with the shared nature of the Internet. Suggestions for future research are offered.
The proof-of-concept demonstration reported by Barabasi et al. (2001) involved a single “parasite” computer networked to multiple “host” Web servers by means of the Internet. The underlying communication between the parasite and hosts followed the standard TCP/IP protocol. Within this context, the parasite exercised a form of covert exploitation of host computing resources, covert because it was accomplished without knowledge or consent of host owners, and exploitation because the targeted resources were used for purposes of interest to the parasite, not necessarily the host owners. Covert exploitation of networked computing resources is not a new phenomenon (Smith, 2000; Velasco, 2000). In this section, we will review a few common examples of covert exploitation including some that take advantage of known vulnerabilities in the Internet communication process.