White-Hat Hackers Help 'Fold' COVID-19 Proteins

A grassroots effort provides scientists with computing power to help simulate the novel coronavirus' proteins and come up with therapeutic solutions for the disease.

Source: r00t f0lds

Some 200 security experts including former members of the famed 1990s-era hacking collective L0pht, Metasploit creator HD Moore, and Black Hat and DEF CON founder Jeff Moss are donating their computing power - including some password-cracking processors and gaming systems - to help run simulations of the dynamics of COVID-19 virus proteins.

The effort is part of the so-called Folding@home project that for 20 years has been employing crowdsourced computer-processing power to help run molecular calculations for diseases including cancer and Alzheimer's disease - and most recently for COVID-19. Folding is basically the process of assembling a protein, and simulating that process takes massive CPU and GPU (graphical processing unit) power so scientists can more closely study how proteins "misfold" and cause disease processes.

Folding@home is a voluntary botnet of sorts - a distributed network of computers that each pitch in to run parts of the process and send the data to the labs. To date there are some 100,000 participants, who Folding@home call "citizen scientists," and the goal is to come up with therapies for the diseases based on the research. Folding@home is based out of the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, with support from its other main labs at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Temple University.

Participants download a client software package from Folding@home and can specify that their processing power gets allotted to different teams of volunteers. The security industry team, dubbed called r00t f0lds, was initially organized via a Slack channel. The team includes former L0pht members Chris Wysopal, Christien Rioux, Peter Mudge, and Cris Thomas (aka Space Rogue), and most recently added Moss and Moore.

The team jokingly refers to its effort as "virus protection by questionable botnets," in reference to the way the crowdsourced network of computing power is pooled for the project. Of course it's not illegal like a botnet, notes Wysopal, co-founder and CTO of Veracode. "We're just harnessing the computer power we have the right to use," he says.

And that computing power includes home computers, gaming systems, and even password-cracking appliances. "Some people are using their employers' password cracking" platforms for processing power, Wysopal says. "Instead of cracking passwords, they can use it to do [protein] folding."

"It's people stuck at home and [wanting] to feel like they are doing something" to help in the COVID-19 crisis, he says.  

According to Folding@home, the goal is to see "the protein in action," not just a static look at its structure. This more dynamic view of the protein could provide clues for treatments for diseases, according to a post on the project's site

One member of the r00t f0lds team who requested anonymity says the effort is a way to help fight COVID-19. "Combining efforts with like-minded security professionals to utilize our unused CPUs and GPUs to battle COVID-19 is a way that we can all [help]," he says.

How It Works
Volunteers for Folding@home can set their machines to run nonstop or during idle times (after hours or overnight, for example).

So what does this mean computing power-wise? Crowdsourced, distributed computing power today allows scientists to inexpensively get more computing power than a typical supercomputer. Wysopal says one of the fastest supercomputers in the world - Summit, which is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory - isn't as fast as the power of the collective r00t f0lds team's processing power. Summit clocks in at 149 petaflops, and Folding@home at 2,400 petaflops, he notes.

Wysopal has donated seven of his own computers, including his son's gaming system, to the effort.

The gaming system is set to run only when it's idle so it doesn't slow the gaming experience. "As soon as he stops gaming, it starts folding," he says.

There's even a gamification aspect to participation. Teams can earn about 50,000 points per day for a high-end CPU, for example, while a high-end GPU can earn 1.6 million points per day, Wysopal explains. A low-end graphics processor can tally about 100,000 points a day, he says.

The r00t f0lds team is currently ranked in the top 300 teams overall in the COVID-19 project, he says. 

Bruce Schneier, a renowned security expert who has been promoting the concept of security experts using their hacking skills in the public interest, notes that the Folding@home project is a "socially beneficial project that wants your computing resources."

"You have to trust them and their code, of course, but that's true for any code you download and run on your computer," he says.

Wysopal hints that some of the team already has been digging into the client software to improve its security. The most current version of the software isn't new, he notes. He explains there is some risk running such a client that phones home for instructions. "It reaches out of your internal network and asks for work to do. If there was a buffer overflow in that package that came down, it could be exploited," for example, he says.

"I guess we're all taking a calculated risk," he adds. "[However], I don't feel like it's any more of a risk than downloading software from a major software vendor."  

Meanwhile, HD Moore says he "poked around a bit" on the software, which appears to have the requisite code-signing, update-signing, and other security measures, but there are some potential weaknesses as well in the local Web service as well as with the Authenticode certificate.

"Taking a step back and looking at the people involved with the r00t f0lds team, it is great to see a lot of recognizable names in the top contributions," says Moore, founder and CEO of Critical Research Corp., and vice president of research and development at Atredis Partners. "It is nice to see that folks who grew up during the early commercialization of the Internet are still engaged, with many of them in leadership roles."

The security team of r00t f0lds is looking for more participants to join its team with computing power. To sign up, download the Folding@home client software and enter the Team ID of 258829, Wysopal says.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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