When the government revealed its Computer Time for Tax Credit program on April 16th, the public was confused. Few understood at first glance the intent: Install a small piece of software on your computer, and in its idle periods, it processes government data on the government’s behalf. Every hour grants the computer owner ten cents of tax credit, to a maximum of $80 per person or $160 per family, not to be carried over into any subsequent year. The first year, the government lost $76 million in tax revenues and saved $23 million in computing costs. The following year $436 million in revenues disappeared, replaced with $326 million in unspent computing costs and $155 million in energy costs. The program continued to pay for itself.
Hackers spread worms that collected and shared the processed data, striving to decrypt and reassemble the jigsawed information into something informative. Many failed. DrawPantsCollective claimed success four years after the program’s inception. Torrents spread across the net, mostly records of lots and lots of context-free math. Amateur and professional scientists the world over ventured guesses at what the various calculations indicated: satellite movements, railgun simulations, phone tap analysis.
They didn’t have to be right.