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On The Horizon: Your Computer Could Help Fight Terrorism

Volunteering your PC just might make the world a safer place

Here's a problem that's becoming more familiar: You have oceans of data, tera-byte after terabyte of information, about something. Your job is to sift through all of this information to find anything out of the ordinary, something that, if only you could find it, could prove important, valuable, or both.

The scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- SETI -- face just such a problem in the form of the immense stream of data being produced by radio telescopes around the globe about electromagnetic emissions from across the visible universe. Getting the information isn't the problem; sifting through it to find anything that might represent a signal is a number-crunching task of gigantic proportions.

A group of astronomers and computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, is solving this problem in a fairly audacious manner. Their project, dubbed SETI@ home, breaks the data stream into millions of tiny fragments. Each fragment gets sent to a volunteer for processing. These volunteers have installed on their computers the SETI@home software, which detects when their CPUs aren't engaged, runs the analyses on the data fragments, and sends them back to the scientists at Berkeley.

SETI@home lets people donate their spare processing power to this project, which turns the global network into a massive parallel processor of enormous power. The numbers are staggering: More than 4 million volunteers have donated more than 1 million years of CPU time, performing more than 2 billion trillion (2 times 10 to the 21st power) mathematical operations at a rate of 49.23 trillion operations per second (compared with around 12 trillion operations per second for the fastest supercomputer). This data and more can be found on the SETI@home Web site at

The bottom line: The $500,000 spent on the SETI@home project built a virtual machine that's some four to five times faster than a top-of-the-line supercomputer, which costs around $110 million. It got us thinking. The experts say that intelligence will be our primary weapon in the war on terrorism, and that the problem up to this point has been a lack of analytic resources to make use, in real time, of much of the information already collected. Why not take a page from the SETI@home book and recruit volunteers to help process this data? If 4 million people have volunteered to use their computers to help find alien civilizations, surely 10 times that many would want to help protect Americans from attack. You'd have a computer of unimaginable power at your disposal.

There will certainly be all sorts of problems that must be solved before this could become a reality, and perhaps there are insurmountable security issues. On the other hand, maybe this is just the kind of crazy idea that could actually work and make the world a better, safer place.

David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at

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