For years, if you’ve used BitTorrent, you’ve probably used µTorrent to manage and control torrent files. The software is the most popular Torrent client online with an estimated 100 million users, and its valued for its small footprint and rich feature set. µTorrent has been including adware for several years (despite warning people in its install against installations that attempt to charge for the program), but it may have crossed a line this time — numerous users are reporting that installing the program also silently installs an application called Epic Scale.
Epic Scale is shady looking, to say the least. The company website claims a straight link between installing Epic Scale and benefiting charities — literally.
The impression the website gives is that by installing this program, you literally donate compute time to charity. It’s like Folding@Home, or SETI, or another equivalent project — right?
Well, no. Not exactly. A little farther down the page, the website notes:
“How is money earned?”
“Solving math problems for weather prediction, physics simulations, cryptography (including cryptocurrency mining) and more has real world value. We solve these problems on behalf of our trusted partners, and donate proceeds to your favorite charities.”
Here’s a hint: The only one of those activities that actually earns any money is cryptocurrency mining, and that’s what Epic Scale does.
On the one hand, this is actually kind of baffling. Cryptocurrency mining on CPUs went outyears ago. It’s incredibly unlikely that Epic Scale could generate much in the way of income — even with massive amounts of miners, CPU scaling simply isn’t good enough. On the other hand, the company has ambitions — its CPU-scanning software notes that my system (a Core i7-3960X) has zero AMD and zero Nvidia cards. That’s not true — but obviously Epic Scale wants to, erm, scale out.
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The larger problem here is that even if I wanted to donate cryptocurrency to charity, Epic Scale never reveals how much of its proceeds are actually donated or how it selects the organizations in question. The company says that it donates 100% of profits to to charity “because we are just starting out and want to make as big of an impact as we can.” This is nonsensical. Organizations that are just starting out need to invest at least part of their profits back into the company in order to grow larger. This implies that Epic Scale has a fairly liberal view of the word “profit.” Nothing wrong with that, as such, but again — there’s no guarantee that any significant percentage of donated CPU cryptocurrency time is making it back to the givers.
As for the chosen programs, both of Epic Scale’s choices are Y-Combinator darlings, but one of them, the HIV vaccine immunity project, has been heavily criticized by scientists for having no actual scientists involved and for pursuing debunked methods of vaccine research.
The other, Watsi, is a crowd-funding platform, not an actual charitable institution.
In short, even in a best-case, above-board situation, this is software that takes control of your CPU time (it installs to burn cycles “continuously” by default) to generate profit, while never disclosing how much of that profit is actually donated to charities. And it picks charity organizations of questionable value at best. The entire point of giving to an organization like Watsi is that users crowdfund the candidates. Take away the personal element, and how does Epic Scale choose its donations (assuming it’s ever made any)?
Much ink has already been spilled on the supposed bad behavior of the program, including allegations that it hides itself in the Control Panel and is installed by µTorrent invisibly. I observed neither — when I installed µTorrent 3.4.2, I saw the ‘Accept / Decline” screen for Epic Scale, and when I installed Epic Scale, I saw the Add/Remove option in the usual place. The installer, it must be noted, is completely broken and uninstalls essentially nothing — but broken uninstallers, in and of themselves, are not crimes.
The question of whether or not Epic Scale honestly installs itself, or if µTorrent properly represents the software is, of course, important — but equally important is whether or not the company behind the software is honest and upfront about its own mission and activities. Donating to organizations with zero scientific backing and to crowdfunding platforms at undisclosed rates, while misrepresenting the function of the software, isn’t a valid use of CPU time — it’s just one more example of how good software is ruined by bad add-ons.
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