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February 24, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Study Plays Down Export of Computer Jobs
New York Times (02/23/06) P. C11; Lohr, Steve

A recent ACM study has found that the fears of offshore outsourcing undermining the United States' competitive advantage in computer science and technology have been overstated. The year-long study found that just 2 percent to 3 percent of IT jobs would likely be outsourced annually, and that the future will see more jobs created than lost, provided that the United States continues its migration toward high-value sectors, such as supplying biology, business, and other fields with information technology. While IT employment is higher today than it was at the height of the dot-com days, the fear that jobs are being exported undermines student interest in technology, according to ACM President David Patterson. A survey last year found that just 1 in 75 college students planned to major in computer science, down from 1 in 30 in 2000. "The perception among high school students and their parents is that the game is over--that all computing jobs are going overseas," said Patterson. "It's an extraordinarily widely held misperception." In that sense, warns Patterson, the fear that American technological leadership is in decline could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as waning student interest driven by the errant notion that the good jobs are going overseas could sap the U.S. talent pool, forcing technology companies to look for skilled workers overseas. While ACM's findings are reassuring to a software industry more susceptible than most to exporting jobs overseas, the report also notes that technology retraining programs and computer education are still in need of reform. The ACM Job Migration Task Force report, "Globalization and Offshoring of Software," is available at http://www.acm.org/globalizationreport/
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The Computer That Works When It's Idle
Nature (02/22/06) Ball, Philip

Onur Hosten and his team of researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a light beam-based quantum computer capable of effortlessly retrieving an item from a database and performing computations while turned off. Quantum computers simultaneously run multiple calculations due to the superpositioning ability of individual atoms, light photons, and other quantum objects, meaning that a quantum switch can be both on and off at the same time. Even while a quantum computer is not running, it can still perform calculations because the running state has left an imprint on the 'not running' state's history. While quantum computing can run at much greater speeds than traditional computers, quantum processes can only be stated in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, meaning that a quantum computer will at times produce an incorrect answer. To mitigate this problem, Hosten and his team proposed using the quantum phenomenon known as the Zeno effect, which effectively alters an outcome's probability just by searching for it. Their quantum computer uses mirrors, laser beams, and light detectors to encode data in photons' quantum states, effectively placing a photon simultaneously in the states of being fed and not being fed into an optical processor that then interprets its quantum state based on an algorithm.
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Rise From the Machines: Surveillance Software Gets Smart
National Geographic News (02/22/06) Harder, Ben

While lawmakers and advocacy groups debate the legitimacy of the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program, a host of new technologies are emerging that could revolutionize the scope and method of eavesdropping. New data mining programs are appearing to help intelligence analysts cull through the massive volume of written, audio, and video communications in search of information that could be relevant to the war on terror. Advanced applications can even mine several intercepts at once, offering far more efficiency and vigilance than human agents, as well as being uninfluenced by biases and prejudices. Automated sound analysis tools can almost perfectly distinguish between a child's voice and an adult's, and can usually determine the speaker's gender, age, and other characteristics. Determining that the speaker calling in a bomb threat is a child would call into greater question the seriousness of the threat than if it were an adult, and programs might one day be able to determine with certainty the speaker's country of origin, though SRI International's Venkata Gadde believes that there will always be limitations to the program's precision. Automated analysis is also proving more accurate in detecting when a speaker is lying through the excessive use of 'junk words'--articles, prepositions, and pronouns, while the use of 'exception words,' such as "not," "but," and "except" is usually indicative of honesty, though this analysis does not come with a guarantee of success, either. Similar computer programs have been used to gauge truthfulness in news stories and other writing, and to determine the author of a ransom note. The University of Arizona's Tom Meservy and his information-system colleagues are developing a program to analyze non-verbal cues in video transmissions by analyzing the motions of the speaker's head and hands, though computers still have difficulty determining whose body parts belong to whom in a crowded scene.
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Guarding the Wire: A Career in Computer Security
Science (02/24/06) Fazekas, Andrew

University of California, Berkeley, computer scientist David Wagner believes that as long as business, government, and consumers use computers, security will always be a necessity. Given the error-prone process of software development, Wagner argues that the best approach to security is to create applications that protect software as it is being developed. With cyber crime having exceeded the drug trade in overall profitability, security experts such as Wagner are in high demand, with a recent survey projecting that the number of information-security professionals around the world would increase from 1.3 million in 2003 to 2.1 million in 2008. The Labor Department shares Wagner's view that security is a burgeoning field, where threats emerge faster than security experts can address them. Wagner gained his first bit of notoriety as a graduate student at Berkeley in 1995 when he and a friend decided to test Netscape's claim that its method of encryption enabled customers to securely send credit card information over the Internet through its browser. When they discovered how easy it was to intercept credit card numbers protected by Netscape's random cryptographic key generator, Wagner and his friend were soon contacted by the media and Netscape shipped out an overhauled version of its browser with a different security algorithm. Since opting for a career in academia, Wagner has devoted considerable attention to e-voting systems, noting that the relatively small commitment made by the private sector into developing the machines precludes advanced security research. Wagner believes that a secure, paperless voting system is the biggest challenge facing the industry today, one that, he notes, no one in the private sector wants to take up. "Probably the only place that I could do work in e-voting security is in a university because there's not much profit to be had in securing elections. It's crucial to democracy, but it's not a big moneymaker."
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Fingerprint Advances Will Fight Cybercrime
University at Buffalo News (02/22/06)

A team of University at Buffalo biometrics researchers has determined the degree of security afforded by fingerprint scans that typically only capture a partial print, which had been a major stumbling block for the practical implementation of biometric identification in lieu of passwords. "Thus research paves the way toward efficient methods of preventing unauthorized access to handheld devices, such as cell phones, wireless handheld devices, and electronic audio players, as well as to secure Web sites," said Buffalo computer science and engineering professor Venu Govindaraju, adding that the technology could also have applications in forensics. The researchers' technique, the Automated Partial Fingerprint Identification System, defines the keypad sensor dimensions to specify the level of required security, pinning down for the first time how much of a fingerprint that is required to provide a degree of security comparable to a six-letter password. The system relies on an algorithm that determines if two images are a close enough match to verify the identity, recognizing that fingerprints and most other biometric information are incomplete, and that, unlike passwords, biometric data can be slightly different with each use. Securely matching biometric scans requires an algorithm that can adjust for factors that could cause variations in a person's fingerprints, such as how firmly the person pressed and the level of moisture in the finger. Govindaraju notes that the system relies on a transformation of the image, rather than the image of the fingerprint itself, making reverse engineering all but a mathematical impossibility.
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Decentralized Search Finds Results
IST Results (02/22/06)

To help sift through the multitude of unstructured information dispersed over a corporation's networks, the IST-funded GRACE program developed a search and categorization tool to facilitate the integration of content from a variety of sources accessible through a standardized interface. GRACE replaces a central database with the Grid, indexing information under each Grid node, depending on which is available to handle the processing. The GRACE system, built for retrieving information from distributed sources, also stores the indexes locally. The GRACE system compiles the unstructured, textual information frequently stored in different document formats, and facilitates the integration of internal and external content sources. The GRACE systems signals the beginning of a migration toward the Semantic Grid, notes Jawed Siddiqi of Sheffield Hallam University. "GRACE aimed to see how the resources of the Grid could be applied to less scientific areas," said Siddiqi. "The system could be used by academics, by librarians, in fact by any knowledge worker who wants to compile a reader on a topic." The system converts the harvested textual content from documents into knowledge domains that integrate semantics into associated ontologies, domain concepts, and the meanings and relationships of terms. The GRACE system also works in tandem with the Grid's existing database federation systems, though GRACE is unique in its focus on unstructured data. The GRACE system processes text in multiple languages, and updates itself automatically.
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Global Net Tussle Reaches Uneasy Truce
Register (UK) (02/20/06) McCarthy, Kieren

About 300 representatives from governments, businesses, and academia recently concluded two days of meetings held to begin the process of developing the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a new global body for the Internet agreed upon at last fall's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The meeting, led by UN special advisor Nitin Desai, was held to develop a common understanding among all stakeholders on the nature and character of the IGF. The IGF will hold its first annual meeting some time in late October or November in Athens, Greece. The forum will first address and seek to define its role, a process that started last week. Many want to see the IGF focus on issues that stand a chance of eliciting an international consensus, such as spam, cybercrime, and multi-lingualism. A smaller group of governments and academics hope to push the U.S. role in Internet governance to the forefront, while another group hopes to use the forum as a stepping stone to bridging the digital divide between the First and Third worlds. "I think things are moving ahead reasonably well, and I wish we could have done a little bit more on some of these issues, but I'm not too worried," said Desai, tasked by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to oversee forum efforts. IGF secretariat Markus Kummer says that he hopes that future talks will bring developing countries into the fold more, while academic Milton Mueller hopes that the forum will "integrate online collaboration into the process in a more radical way than people here can even understand." Desai says the meeting produced enough agreement to prepare a report for Annan, who is expected to issue his first recommendations for the forum in about two weeks.
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Borg' Computer Collective Designs NASA Space Antenna
NASA Ames Research Center (02/22/06)

The collective efforts of 80 artificial-intelligence-enabled PCs developed a small, sophisticated space antenna that scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center hope to send into space in March, marking the first time that a computer-generated object will have ventured into orbit, said project leader Jason Lohn. The antennae, each slightly larger than a quarter, will be attached to three satellites, known as microstats, to aid in the study of magnetic fields within the Earth's magnetosphere. The design computers began with random schemes of antennae, refining them gradually before arriving at the final product. "The AI software examined millions of potential antenna designs before settling on a final one," said Lohn, likening the process to Darwinian natural selection. Lohn and his colleagues entered in their performance criteria, and the program worked through an evolution simulation to arrive at the best design for the ST5 satellite antenna. In addition to rapidly adapting existing designs, as it did with the satellites, the evolutionary AI software can also be used to design and create new devices, such as computer chips or even entire machines. The program is the result of two years of research at Ames, and is capable of running on up to 120 PCs. Lohn notes that in addition to creating new devices faster than humans could, the program also produces designs that human engineers might not think of, potentially leading lighter, smaller, and more energy-efficient devices.
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Hackers Beware! New Technique Uses Photons, Physics to Foil Codebreakers
University of Toronto (02/22/06) Wahl, Nicolle

Researchers at the University of Toronto have used a quantum decoy technique to encrypt data transmitted over fiber-optic cable. Quantum cryptography makes use of laser light particles (photons) to deliver encryption keys over fiber-optic cables, and employs Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in which the act of observation alters a quantum object. As a result, a hacker who attempts to eavesdrop on a data stream to determine the encryption key would prompt a change in the photonic decoys, which would indicate that an effort was made to tamper with the data. The experiment involved sending photonic decoys over a 15-kilometer telecommunications fiber, and then transmitting a second broadcast to let the receiving computer know which photons carried the signal and which photons were decoys. The quantum decoy technique changes the intensity of the photons. "Quantum cryptography is trying to make all transmissions secure, so this could be very useful for online banking, for example," says professor Hoi-Kwong Lo, a specialist in physics and electrical and computer engineering at the university's Center for Quantum Information and Quantum Control. "The idea can be implemented now, because we actually did the experiment with a commercial device," adds Lo, senior author of the study on the technique.
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Interview: Tim Bray Opens up About Open Source
InfoWorld (02/21/06) Krill, Paul

In a recent interview, Sun Microsystems' Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML, discussed his thoughts on the present and future states of open source, XML, and document formats. Bray believes the open source model is compatible with corporate interests, and that money can be made through technical support even if the code is freely available. The model of licensing something that is available for free and easily duplicated is unnatural to Bray, and he believes that open source will be the model of the future. While open source endeavors do not collect licensing fees, Bray points to Red Hat's success in collecting subscription fees as an alternative revenue model. Bray said the genesis of XML came from the realization in 1996 that the Web was not just a fad, and that HTML was insufficient to handle the demand for new applications beyond simply looking at pages. XML 1.0 was a whittled down version of the earlier, much larger and more complicated Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) that had been used in massive publishing endeavors such as European Union legislation. After discarding 90 percent of SGML and making the remaining language more friendly to the Web, Bray and his colleagues had XML, which has enjoyed far greater popularity than he ever expected. In the area of Web services, Bray notes that Sun, like so many others, is pursuing interoperability with the stack of WS-* applications, once they have been proven stable and commercially viable. Bray describes the growth of blogs as the most significant issue about the Internet today, noting that RSS feeds help sift through the multitude, though with the number of blogs in the world doubling every five and a half months, much still goes unread.
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Seminar's Aim: Engineering Diversity
EE Times (02/20/06)No. 1411, P. 6; Markey, Eileen

Invoking noted black inventors of the past, Wilber Murdock led a seminar in January at the Schomberg Center for Research on Black Culture in New York to broadcast the message that the field of engineering needs the contributions of black thinkers and innovators. With black participation in engineering at just above 3 percent, Murdock explained to the overcapacity crowd that their ideas are essential to the advancement of science, and that technology will be more appealing to black people if it is relevant to their experience. He argued that responsibility and individual contributions are essential to sustaining the United States' competitive advantage in science and technology. "Without each one of you young men and young women, the technology race for 'team America' will be over." Noting the disconcerting incarceration rate of black Americans, Murdock called for a paradigm shift, supported by initiatives such as his new curriculum, the Science of Disruptive Technologies Business Innovation Systems, which attempts to distill the science of innovation into a child-friendly format. Murdock exchanges the often stilted conventional school program for a fun, interactive approach that convinces children that they are capable of inventing, drawing on "the science of rap music and sports." Jerry Hultin, president of Brooklyn's Polytechnic University, took the stage at the seminar and called on the audience for ideas for inventions. Hultin believes that the best ways to capture the attention of members of a young audience are to engage them in a hands-on activity and to demonstrate the practical applications of science.
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Buyer Beware: Online Shopping Hazards Exposed by UMass Amherst Computer Scientist
University of Massachusetts Amherst (02/21/06)

University of Massachusetts Amherst computer scientist Kevin Fu was critical of the use of cookies by Web sites during a mid February American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in St. Louis, questioning their use as a log-in method. Fu said the use of client certificates in SSL or "secure socket layer," the system often used by universities, for example, to allow students to look up their grades, is a better log-in method. He described SSL as using a signet ring to stamp a seal in wax, but not sending the ring itself to a Web site, which is the case when cookies are used to authenticate a user who is shopping online. Cookies allow users to bypass a Web site's log-in page, but someone who has access to a series of cookies on a hard drive has the opportunity to find a pattern and determine their algorithm. "It's the kind of thing a bored teenager could do in a few hours," Fu said. Retailers have not embraced certificates for their Web sites because transactions would no longer be as quick and easy, said Fu, adding that people do not have much of a choice when it comes to shopping online. "Even if you shop by phone, the attendant often enters your data on the same page you are trying to avoid," according to Fu.
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National LambdaRail Is Complete
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/22/06) Kiernan, Vincent

National LambdaRail President Thomas W. West says the national academic fiber-optic computer network is unlikely to be extended to the north-central part of the country. Recently completed, the 15,000-mile project runs from New York to Seattle and from Jacksonville, Fla., to Sunnyvale, Calif., with its north-south links connecting the two east-west lines. "Right now we do not have any plans on our plate to augment the backbone," says West. The National LambdaRail, a consortium of universities and companies that financed and built the fiber-optic network, has offered to help researchers in the region attract the financing needed to embark on their own regional project, a fiber-optic network that would connect to the LambdaRail backbone. Meanwhile, the consortium continues to entertain the idea of merging with Internet2, the consortium that runs the Abilene network for researchers. Some observers believe the structures of the organizations could be problematic, considering large universities have a heavy presence in the 30-member National LambdaRail, compared with Internet2, which has smaller institutions among its more than 200 participants. "We are driving to make this happen by mid April or early May," says West. Internet2 has provided funding for the National LambdaRail, and plans to use the fiber-optic network to build a network to replace Abilene.
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Invasion of the Computer Snatchers
Washington Post Magazine (02/19/06) P. 10; Krebs, Brian

Hackers are commandeering unprotected computers or "bots" to deliver spam or adware programs that users unwittingly install on their systems. Adware, also known as spyware, mines data about the user's online browsing habits that marketing companies can use to direct targeted advertising, or can be employed to gather sensitive information for more nefarious purposes. Adware distribution companies recruit hackers or "affiliates" to help install their software, luring them with the promise of a hefty paycheck. These companies state in their "terms and conditions" disclaimer that affiliates will not be paid if they install their products without computer owners' permission, but hackers have devised crafty and often simple ways to surreptitiously install adware. Making money is increasingly becoming the No. 1 goal of hackers, who often perceive their victims as too stupid or lazy to take basic precautions. The latest hacker generation was brought up with the Internet, and learned how to hack for profit with a minimum of cost or effort. Hackers control their adware installation through networks of compromised computers or "botnets," and cracking down on botnets is difficult because hackers can easily switch their botnets onto different servers or ISPs. Prosecution against botnet operators is another arduous challenge, given that their crimes and networks often transcend national boundaries.
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Political Rivals Unite Against Giants' E-Mail Plan
IDG News Service (02/23/06) McMillan, Robert

Sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and drawing support from political action committees on both sides of the spectrum, a coalition of nonprofit groups and small businesses has formed to halt the plans of Yahoo! and AOL to levy fees on mass emailers. Under the plan, Yahoo! and AOL would adopt Goodmail Systems' CertifiedEmail, an email certification system that would deem some messages second-class and collect a sender's fee in exchange for preferential treatment in a recipient's inbox. "The ISPs' view that they can auction off preferred access to my email box is really wrong," said Cindy Cohn of the EFF. "It's not the ISP's to sell." AOL is due to implement the system in about a month, with Yahoo! to begin using it shortly thereafter. Representatives from the liberal MoveOn.org and the conservative RightMarch.com, two PACs that are consistently in opposite corners from each other, recently came together in alleging that the bulk fees would hinder the online exchange of information. AOL says it has every intention to continue with the service, claiming it is similar to the post office's priority mail service in that it simply offers subscribers more choice in sending and receiving messages. The online PACs both depend on mass email to reach their members, noting that AOL and Yahoo!'s plans could put an end to their legitimate emailing activities, and that certified email, while useful in preventing fraud, should be an optional tool.
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Beyond Bar Codes: Turning Up Plastic Radio Labels
Science News (02/11/06) Vol. 169, No. 6, P. 83; Weiss, Peter

Researchers in Europe have developed plastic radio frequency-identification (RFID) prototypes that operate at the industry-standard frequency of 13.56 MHz. At the 2006 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco this week, researchers from Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven in the Netherlands presented an all-plastic device that responded with an eight-bit code when queried via radio waves by a nearby reader. And Markus Bohm of PolylC in Erlangen, Germany, discussed the experimental 13.56-MHz tag the company developed last fall. Each of the plastic RFID tags "constitutes an advance toward making a manufacturable RFID tag," according to Klaus J. Dimmler of Organic ID in Colorado Springs, Colo. Plastic RFID tags would be cheaper to produce than silicon-based tags, which are found in smart cards. The use of plastic could allow for the emergence of RFID tags in the labeling of consumer products, electronic tracking, and transactions as well. However, researchers would still need to use printing technology to make production of all-plastic RFID tags cost-effective, and the devices need to broadcast more powerfully.
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Patently Absurd
InformationWeek (02/20/06)No. 1077, P. 36; Chabrow, Eric

The U.S. patent system needs serious reforms in both the system itself and the quality of patents. Many ongoing tech-related patent infringement lawsuits serve as testimony to the patent system's shortcomings, specifically its inability to keep pace with IT advancements. The foundation for this lamentable state of affairs was set down over the past 20 years as the courts bolstered the rights of patent holders while simultaneously loosening the standards for granting patents. There was a 73 percent increase in U.S. patent applications between 1995 and 2005, and software patents now account for roughly 10 percent of all issued patents, according to Internet Patent News Service editor Gregory Aharonian. Software and business-process patents are frequently characterized by critics as bad patents that create a disincentive for innovation and put the United States at an economic disadvantage. The approval of good patents is being hindered by the Patent Office's massive backlog of unexamined applications, which currently numbers around 600,000 cases with 100,000 more expected this year, according to Patent Commissioner John Doll. Reforms suggested by Doll include hiring more patent examiners, accelerating the training program, and imposing limits on the amount of claims applicants can submit as well as the number of appeals permitted when an application is rejected. Back in June, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) proposed legislation that would permit outside experts to evaluate an invention's novelty by supplying prior art, and broaden the range of challenges allowed following a patent's approval; the latter provision has sparked discord between major tech companies and emerging businesses over which challenges should be permissible.
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Geeks in Toyland
Wired (02/06) Vol. 14, No. 2, P. 104; Koerner, Brendan

Lego sought the expertise of die-hard hobbyists to update its Mindstorms programmable robot kit, and their input resulted in Mindstorms robots capable of more realistic appearance and behavior. A group of Mindstorms enthusiasts--software engineer Steve Hassenplug, electronics engineer John Barnes, David Schilling, and Ralph Hempel--were tapped by Mindstorms director Soren Lund to serve on a Mindstorms User Panel (MUP) that would assist with the design of the upgraded kit. Brainstorming sessions between Lund's people and the MUP led to such innovations as a "brain brick" that receives data from sensors and transmits instructions to the robot's motors; the brick features a 32-bit processor that is four times as powerful as the previous Mindstorms processor, enabling the robots to perform more sophisticated tasks, such as walking with a human-like gait and responding to voice commands. The two-by-four Lego blocks used to assemble Mindstorms 2.0 robots have given way to technic blocks or "studless Legos," while the new kit's user interface, unlike the old one, is intuitive, graphical, PC-compatible, and equipped with drag-and-drop icons. Whereas Mindstorms 2.0 boasted only two motors, one light sensor, and two touch sensors, Mindstorms NXT adds another motor and complements reworked light and touch sensors with new sound and ultrasonic sensors. The old kit's two-wire analog cables have been replaced with six-wire digital cables in the new kit. These upgrades were designed with the goal of reducing Mindstorms' complexity, which Lund blamed for the product's lack of interest among younger consumers; a dramatic revamping of RCX-code, Mindstorms' programming language, was needed. Lego is planning to offer discounted pre-release versions of the NXT kits to Mindstorms hobbyists to put the new product through its paces.
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