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September 15, 2006

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Election Glitches 'Could Get Ugly'
USA Today (09/14/06) P. 1A; Wolf, Richard

With the crucial midterm elections just eight weeks away, state and local governments are scrambling to prepare voting machines and train poll workers to fix the problems that are expected to arise. Glitches have already occurred this year in numerous states, and election officials warn that this year's election has more potential for technological difficulty than any other since 2000, with some 30 percent of the nation's precincts using new equipment. "If you're ever going to have a problem, it's going to be that first election," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services. Almost half of all U.S. counties have upgraded their voting systems to optical-scan or electronic voting since 2000, but they are still largely dependent on poll workers with an average age of 72 who are generally not experienced computer users. The principal concerns that observers voice are a shortage of technical support staff with both the precincts and the vendors, heightened demand for equipment delaying deliveries, and the touch-screen machines that have a paper backup for audits and recounts. "There are so many potential failure points this year that some of it could get ugly," said R. Doug Lewis of the Election Center. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Simulated IT Attacks Reveal Response Flaws
eWeek (09/13/06) Hines, Matt

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released the results of its Cyber Storm exercise, outlining the areas where government agencies and enterprises need to shore up their responsiveness to new IT threats. The exercise found that communication between the public and private sector in the event of an attack on IT infrastructure is insufficient, and that those groups could be hampered by their inability to discern the full scope of an attack. The results did indicate that progress is being made on those two fronts, however. Cyber Storm was intended to assess the information-sharing capabilities and level of readiness for an attack throughout the federal, state, and local levels of government. The testing conditions were designed to be a controlled environment where participants could simulate the coordination that would be required during a major cyber event. More than 100 public and private organizations at more than 60 locations in five countries participated in the exercise, which aimed to recreate the adverse effects that an attack or disaster could have on critical infrastructure. "In many ways, this exercise was designed to push the system to the maximum edge. That allows you to identify the greatest points of vulnerability, and we're fundamentally working to update and take lessons from Cyber Storm and Katrina and look at how we can improve coordination," said Andy Purdy, acting director of the National Cyber Security Division at the Department of Homeland Security. Cyber Storm participants simulated cyberattacks against the nation's energy, transportation, and IT infrastructures that would have the potential to cause ripple effects throughout the government, economic, and social environments of participating countries. Responders tended to handle single threats effectively, but had trouble correlating multiple incidents occurring throughout public and private infrastructure. The report did find, however, that the existing communication platform between international governments is relatively effective.
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Researchers Reveal 'Extremely Serious' Vulnerabilities in E-Voting Machines
Princeton University (09/14/06) Riordan, Teresa

A team of Princeton University computer scientists claims to have developed software that can manipulate ballot counts in e-voting machines and be installed in under a minute in the most commonly deployed systems. "We have created and analyzed the code in the spirit of helping to guide public officials so that they can make wise decisions about how to secure elections," said Edward Felten, director of Princeton's new Center for Information Technology Policy. In their examination of the Diebold AccuVote-TS machine, Felten and his colleagues found that the machine is vulnerable to numerous serious threats. In a brief video on their Web site, the researchers outline how the vote-stealing software can disrupt a mock election. The researchers show how the systems can fall prey to viruses that can automatically transmit themselves from one machine to another without being detected. Felten said that policymakers should take the threat of malicious software infecting the machines seriously, and that there is reason to be worried about other e-voting machines, in addition to the one that was tested. "There is reason for concern about other machines as well, even though our paper doesn't directly evaluate them," Felten said. "Jurisdictions using these machines should think seriously about finding a backup system in time for the November elections." For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Experimental AI Powers Robot Army
Wired News (09/14/06) Hambling, David

The U.S. Air Force is working to develop robots with navigational abilities well beyond those required to complete the DARPA Grand Challenge. Whereas those robots merely had to steer themselves over miles of desert terrain, intelligent agents for the military would have to be able to autonomously navigate into underground bunkers, map unfamiliar sites in three dimensions, and determine what is inside those sites without being detected. With those goals in mind, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is looking well beyond the capabilities of any existing system, and staking its hopes on developing new software that would enable the robots to learn, walk, and interact in a more sophisticated way than ever before. The software is based on the concept of developing new ideas building on existing knowledge, and similar applications have already written music and designed soft drinks. The software is a form of neural network with two identifying features. One is the noise that is introduced into the network to jumble existing ideas into new forms; the other is a filter to compare the novel ideas with existing knowledge and discard what is deemed unsuitable. Self-learning and adaptability will be central to the success of the software. The research is based on Stephen Thaler's Creativity Machine, which excels at adapting to new physical features and ferreting out the most efficient way to perform a particular task. In his work for AFRL, Thaler has been designing what he calls Creative Robots, which can work together in a swarm to accomplish a common goal. "This approach has less chance of getting stuck than any other" when negotiating unfamiliar obstacles, said AFRL's Lloyd Reshard. Thaler's current project, called CSMARRT (Creative, Self-Learning, Multi-Sensory, Adaptive, Reconfigurable, Robotics Toolbox), is a software package built for designing and modeling virtual robots that can control any type of robot hardware and handle locomotion, sensors, and intelligent behavior to execute a mission.
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Why Johnny Can't Code
Salon.com (09/14/06) Brin, David

The programmers responsible for engineering the advanced capabilities of today's PCs cut their teeth on line-programming languages such as BASIC, but the absence of such languages on modern PCs and education removes an important tool for getting young people interested in programming, writes David Brin. He argues that BASIC is priceless for teaching programming because it is easy to pick up, yet textbooks are starting to exclude the language because of a perception throughout the computer industry that it is obsolete. Though BASIC may be tedious and arduous to work with, the language has an undeniable power as an inspiration for modern-day programmers and their innovations. The lack of such languages' availability to children today translates into a lack of technological empowerment for tomorrow's coders, according to Brin. He laments that computer industry powerhouses such as Apple and Microsoft, "For all of their high-flown education initiatives (like the '$100 laptop')...seem bent on providing information consumption devices, not tools that teach creative thinking and technological mastery." Brin writes that many kids wish to learn programming skills using fundamental instruments such as BASIC, but with BASIC becoming unavailable, these kids are at a disadvantage that could stifle creativity.
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Is Supercomputing Going Hetero?
HPC Wire (09/15/06) Vol. 15, No. 37, Feldman, Michael

An increasing number of big-name vendors are betting on heterogeneous architectures as the next major stage of high-performance computing. Cray has perhaps placed the largest bet on heterogeneous architectures, having staked its future on its Adaptive Computing vision, which imagines systems comprised of multiple types of processing engines. Many industry observers are already looking ahead to the obsolescence of today's architectures with multiple processors and cores. Eventually, the simple addition of more processors to a system will yield no effect. Heterogeneous architectures improve efficiency by allowing specialized processing engines to be paired more precisely with different application codes. For certain types of code, one specialized chip can do the work of 100 conventional processors. The transition to heterogeneous architectures is likely to be more challenging than the conversion from single-core to multicore designs, raising challenges such as coupling the disparate processing engines and determining the ratio of different kinds of processors. But the major challenge will be scaling software to a heterogeneous architecture. The software will have to be able to intelligently map application code to the various available processor resources. The central question revolves around how to design such software, according to Ken Kennedy, director of the Center for Scalable Application Development Software. "How do you build software tools that are scalable from a system with a single homogeneous processor to a high-end computing platform with tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of heterogeneous processors?" Kennedy asks.
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UA Scientists Probe 'Dark Web' to Uncover Potential Terrorist Threats
KVOA 4 (Tucson, AZ) (09/12/06) McNamara, Tom

For the past four years, scientists at the University of Arizona have been aiding U.S. government intelligence agencies in their efforts to make sense of the terrorist-related information that is floating around on the Web. As part of the Dark Web project, University of Arizona Eller College of Management professor Dr. Hsinchun Chen and his colleagues have worked out formulas and algorithms for measuring social interactions of terrorists online, and the degree of hatred and violence that is expressed in their communications. Dark Web is now the largest computer database on terrorist Web sites and chat forums, with Chen adding that the number of terror Web sites has grown from hundreds when he started the project to about 5,000. Chen, who is currently tracking about 400 known terrorists, weeds out information that is unlikely to be useful to government agents, but passes along relevant information to intelligence agency experts to conduct sophisticated analysis on his leads. "This could be like a 'myspace' for the terrorist group, how they're interlinking with each other on the Web," Chen says of Dark Web. "It's on the Web, but you need more sophisticated technology to understand this phenomena." Chen is also assisted by advanced computer science students, and some of the students and his staff have been hired by the CIA and other agencies.
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Why We Need More Mathematicians, Scientists and Engineers to Win the Global Economic Battle
The Hill (09/13/06) Landrieu, Mary

The United States must produce more mathematicians, scientists, and engineers if the nation is to remain competitive globally, writes Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a member of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship and Appropriations committees. The future of American workers is at stake, considering more jobs in the years to come will demand technical degrees, and the country must prepare its population for the changing employment market. Studies continue to show that U.S. students are lagging behind other nations in math literacy, and that more young Americans are expressing a lack of interest in pursuing engineering studies, according to Landrieu. At the same time, countries such as South Korea are now graduating as many engineers as the United States, and some analysts are predicting more than 90 percent of scientists and engineers will live in Asia in the next five years. Meanwhile, federal investment in basic research has been on the decline, but the business community is starting to respond by collaborating on programs such as Tapping America's Potential (TAP), or launching their own initiatives, says Landrieu. Congress needs to address the issue of American competitiveness now, and the Protecting America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Act is an example of the kind of foresight that U.S. leaders must have if the nation is to remain the scientific leader. PACE is committed to establishing high schools that specialize in math and science, strengthening training for grade school educators who teach math and science, creating new fellowships and offering tuition support, investing in programs and internships at national laboratories, supporting independent research, and starting the Advanced Research Projects Authority in the Energy Department.
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U.S. Likely to Keep Control of Internet Name System
Reuters (09/13/06) Rothstein, Joel

State Department Bureau of Economic Affairs ambassador David Gross, U.S. coordinator of international communications and information policy since 2001, said Wednesday that the U.S. is likely to retain control over the Internet domain naming system once a memorandum of understanding between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce expires at the end of the month, despite international criticism. The statement follows a July public hearing chaired by Commerce acting assistant secretary for communications and information John Kneuer where overall pessimism over ICANN's readiness to operate independently once the MoU expires was expressed. The Center for Democracy & Technology's David McGuire says, "I don't think the U.S. government will relinquish control of ICANN if there is a risk that the process could get subsumed by a UN-type organization."
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Techies Hot on Concept of 'Wisdom of Crowds,' But It Has Some Pitfalls
USA Today (09/13/06) P. 4B; Maney, Kevin

The idea behind James Surowiecki's popular 2004 book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," is that thousands or millions of people make better collective decisions than individual experts. The theoretical foundation for democracy, the idea is not a new one, but its implications are magnified when applied to the Internet. "The Internet provides a mechanism to get lots of diverse opinions and aggregate it in a quick and cost-effective way," says Surowiecki. By extension, the theory holds that Wikipedia, which is the product of tens of thousands of unpaid contributors, should be a better encyclopedia written by experts. Likewise, Internet mechanisms such as Digg, which allows readers to vote stories to the front page, should do a better job of finding the best stories than professional editors. The problem that Digg ran into was that groups of savvy users began conspiring to artificially boost the popularity of certain stories. In response, Digg has adopted programs to undermine the effectiveness of block voting, a move that has drawn the ire of its regular users. The notion that the wisdom-of-crowds principle needs structure to be effective was demonstrated when the U.K.'s Department of Food and Rural Affairs enlisted the public to help write environmental contracts in the form of a wiki. Despite the shortcomings of the theory, there remains a high level of enthusiasm for the wisdom-of-crowds philosophy. Google, for instance, employs the principle when ranking search results, and the forecasts of the Hollywood Stock Exchange site, where users buy "stocks" of movies and stars, are far more accurate predictors of a movie's success than the internal predictions of studios.
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Researchers Find a Bigger Prime Number
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (09/13/06) Kumar, Kavita

Researchers at Central Missouri State University have used a stable of 850 computers to find the world's largest prime number. With 9.8 million digits, the number found by math and computer science professor Curtis Cooper and chemistry professor Steven Boone tops their discovery last December of a prime number with 9.15 million digits. "It's another great discovery," said Richard Crandall, a Reed University professor who developed the algorithm behind the software that the researchers are using. "The are to be commended for their good luck," he added. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is offering a $100,000 prize to anyone who can find a prime number with 10 million digits. With only 850 computers dedicated to the search for prime numbers, of which there are an infinite number, the researchers would only be expected to produce a breakthrough finding roughly once a decade, Crandall said. The software is available for free and can run on anyone's computer. The program runs whenever the computers are on, but it is a low priority so it does not interfere with the computer's other operations. Each computer receives an untested number from a server in San Diego. Each computer takes about 30 to 40 days to test a number on the order of 9 million digits. Before Cooper and Boone made their breakthrough last December, just eight out of the thousands of people around the world running the software had come up with record prime numbers. Some 44,000 groups throughout the world are using the software on 71,000 computers. While Cooper and Boone have clearly had luck on their side, they also are the group with the largest number of computers, and they have limited their search to numbers in the 9-million digit range, while other groups chasing the prize money could be searching in the 10-million digit range, the researchers say.
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Microsoft Building Security Language for Grids
eWeek (09/13/06) Taft, Daryl K.

Microsoft is developing a new language to improve the security of grid environments through features such as decentralized authorization policies, according to the company's Blair Dillaway. The Security Policy Assertion Language (SecPAL) is a product of an ongoing Microsoft initiative to develop solutions for access control in large-scale grid environments. The need for tight control over trust relationships and delegated access rights has become more important than ever with the development of broad-based, decentralized distributed computing. The SecPAL prototype mimics a multidomain grid environment, incorporating existing Microsoft products and industry standards such as XML. The need for a new language to express security policies comes from the difficulty of describing the multitude of entities and relationships in large-scale grid environments. In addition to access control, SecPAL is also a tool "for expressing trust relationships, authorization policies, delegation policies, identity and attribute assertions, capability assertions, revocations, and audit requirements," Dillaway said in a white paper. The language also lessens the reconciliation requirements for disparate security technologies and the need for semantic translation. SecPAL enables a grid user to temporarily delegate a subset of access rights to another user who needs them for a particular job while keeping the rest of the rights restricted. Dillaway claims that SecPAL is more efficient and usable than existing technologies. In the future, SecPAL could be applied to automated access delegation, job management rights, and constrained trust management, Dillaway said.
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CSAIL Director Brooks to Step Down by 2007
The Tech (09/12/06) Vol. 126, No. 37, Kim, Jihye

MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is losing its director, Rodney Brooks, who wants to focus more on teaching and research at the lab. Brooks plans to relinquish his duties by the end of June 2007. He served as the director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for six years and as its associate director for four years, before MIT merged the AI Lab with the Laboratory for Computer Science in 2003 to form CSAIL, which he has directed since its inception. Over the past 10 years, CSAIL has been involved in a number of smaller collaborative research projects with outside companies, and it currently has a joint lab with Nokia that is focused on developing cell phone software and hardware. Brooks says pursuing long-term projects is a challenge for the lab because all of its funding comes from external sources. Brooks says he was also focused on bringing more women to CSAIL, considering there is a higher percentage of undergraduate women at MIT than at the lab. His research plans include a theoretical project that would bring the adaptability of biological systems to computing, and a more practical, long-term project to design a cost-effective, personal robot worker that would be as easy to operate as a personal computer.
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Higgins Lays Out Roadmap for Open Source Identity Project
Network World (09/14/06) Fontana, John

IBM, Novell, and academic researchers have joined forces on an open-source project that aims to integrate applications and identity systems. The Higgins project, a framework with interface and middleware components, seeks to integrate identity, profile, and relationship data from multiple systems. The Higgins project framework will support applications with a front-end that is based on a browser, rich client, or Web services. The Higgins researchers hope to release the Identity Attribute Service middleware that sits on top of identity repositories. In an attempt to avoid having to move data around the network, the middleware continuously aggregates data from multiple sources, combining them into one identity credential. "It is very important for Higgins to enhance privacy," said Parity Communications CEO and project lead Paul Trevithick. "We will segregate information into distinct contexts." The Higgins group also plans to develop an open-source Security Token Service to run on clients and servers and facilitate the exchange of security tokens. The project is also developing a user interface component, called I-Card, that displays a list of digital identity cards for authentication and other purposes. I-Cards will have read and write capabilities so that new information can be supplied by technologies such as RSS. For the initial reference, the researchers plan to develop Java binding and implementation, and some core components will use the C programming language. In its enabling components, the framework will support PHP, Python, and Ruby.
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RFID Security Consortium Receives $1.1 Million NSF Grant
RFID Journal (09/08/06) O'Connor, Mary Catherine

The NSF has issued a $1.1 million grant to the RFID Consortium for Security and Privacy (CUSP) to explore the security and privacy implications of RFID technology. CUSP is made up of academics and representatives from the private industry who will work together to examine the ways that RFID technology can affect consumer privacy and security, as well as potential deployment options that are safe for both customers and corporations. The CUSP researchers will also attempt to develop cryptographic protocols and partner with standards groups to improve the quality of data-protection tools. "Our plan is to look at ongoing [RFID] deployments and how to make them strong in respect to privacy and authentication," said Kevin Fu, assistant computer science professor the University of Massachusetts and the leader of the consortium. Any security tools that the group develops will be open source, Fu added. UMass and The Johns Hopkins University will be the two academic institutions hosting the research. RSA Laboratories, which has been researching security risks in RFID payment and identification systems, will also be an integral part of the project. While RFID technology can be used for security purposes such as key fobs and contactless smart cards, the tags that are currently deployed are insufficiently protected, according to RSA's Ari Juels. Adding cryptography to tags will not be easy, however, particularly with passive tags that only have a small amount of processing power. RSA and California's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which is interested in improving the security of smart cards, are currently the only two members of the consortium's advisory committee.
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Where to Find the Freshest Air in Town
New Scientist (09/09/06) Vol. 191, No. 2568, P. 26; Reilly, Michael

Inexpensive sensors have become a means for simple and cheap pollution monitoring projects ranging from volunteers riding around London on bikes wearing specially equipped backpacks to smoke detectors modified by University of California researchers to detect ultra-fine particles to the mapping of pollution in lower Manhattan through handheld devices. "We were going for simplicity and ease of use," notes digital media artist Brooke Singer, co-creator of the third effort, known as the Area's Immediate Reading (AIR) project. "This will help ordinary people participate in the conversation about air quality issues--a conversation they don't usually have access to." Next month, new-media artist Shannon Spanhake will launch through San Francisco State University a project to monitor pollution in San Francisco using a network of hundreds of volunteers equipped with cell phone-sized devices outfitted with sensors. Spanhake's intention is to teach students to construct the devices themselves and enable the network using the city's planned municipal Wi-Fi infrastructure. Maintaining data quality can become challenging because low-cost sensors allow collection of so much information. Researchers aim to tackle this challenge by improving their data-processing software. Low-cost sensors are envisioned as tools for environmental science initiatives in addition to pollution monitoring and public health studies.
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Will Your Vote Count?
CIO Insight (08/06)No. 71, P. 43; D'Agostino, Debra

Many problems with electronic voting systems persist six years after the 2000 presidential election illustrated the need for voting modernization, and the government faces a tough challenge in improving confidence levels in e-voting. Among the factors that have shaken people's faith in e-voting's reliability is the miscounting or deletion of votes due to malfunction; the potential of voter fraud because of insufficient security measures; and error-rife statewide registered-voter databases. Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Avi Rubin says, "The problem is that technology makes it easier to manipulate elections in an invisible way. Because the systems are less transparent, the attacks can scale." But perhaps the most damaging contributor is a widespread feeling among U.S. voters that the electoral process is broken. Experts say a voting system that is truly fair and accurate is not an impossibility if certain precautions are taken, most notably a voter-verifiable paper trail, random post-election audits, parallel testing of systems on election day, a prohibition on wireless capabilities, and stringent compliance with detailed chain-of-custody procedures. There is disagreement among states regarding which steps are actually needed. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) is supporting federal legislation that would make all steps mandatory, but whether such measures fly or fall may depend on American taxpayers' willingness to foot the bill. Holt says, "I suspect there are many thousands--maybe even millions--of Americans who don't believe the results of some recent election or other. We have to do everything we can to restore confidence in the mechanism of democracy." Carnegie Mellon University's Michael Shamos argues that there is little money left for additional voting systems security, since the bulk of the Help America Vote Act's funding has been spent already.
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Bursting Tech Bubbles Before They Balloon
IEEE Spectrum (09/06) Vol. 43, No. 9, P. 50; Gorbis, Marina; Pescovitz, David

Projections of the trajectory of science and technology over the next 10 to 50 years through the examination of key trends point to the emergence of certain technologies and the absence of others, according to a poll of over 700 IEEE Fellows jointly conducted by IEEE Spectrum and the Institute for the Future (IFTF). The Fellows agree that bandwidth and computation will continue to increase, enabling such innovations as faster and more accurate modeling of complex systems, almost flawless handwriting recognition, unstructured speech recognition, automatic real-time language processing, better climate simulation, and advanced interactive computer graphics. A transition from massive, centralized infrastructure networks to lightweight, scalable, and modular grids through the emergence of new materials and information technologies is anticipated in the next five decades; among the technologies expected to play important roles are Wi-Fi, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), software-defined radio, distributed power systems, and alternative energy sources. Ninety-five percent of the respondents agree that the proliferation of radio frequency identification (RFID) devices is probable as tiny sensors are increasingly embedded in everyday objects and locations. Insect-sized microbots that can be used for search-and-rescue operations and the application of MEMS to internal medicine are expected over the next few decades by many Fellows, but there is little agreement that supersmall robots that function inside the human body will become a reality because of coordination, communication, and control issues. The affordability and availability of synthetic biology technology such as personal genetic profiles and cheap DNA synthesis is given a one- to two-decade window, although there is heavy skepticism that implantable brain-machine interfaces will be widely embraced. The results of the survey appear to validate former IFTF President Roy Amara's assertion that "We tend to overestimate the impact of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run."
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