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December 6, 2006

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Welcome to the December 6, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Panel Backs Guideline Favoring Voting-Machine Verification
Washington Post (12/06/06) P. A9; Barr, Cameron W.

After failing earlier this week to pass a measure recommending that e-voting machines be required to allow audits independent of their software, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) has unanimously agreed upon a new version of the resolution, which grandfathers in existing systems but states that the "next generation" of e-voting machines should have such independent audit capacities. Electionline.org director Doug Chapin says, "This seems to mark the end of an era" for e-voting without a paper trail, but many point out that there is no money left to be spent on new election systems. No timeline was given by the TGDC, which advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), but many in Congress and local politicians have pledged to begin exploring options to carry out the recommended reforms. Virginia General Assembly Delegate Timothy D. Hugo said that "the committee recommendations...will really make people stand up and pay attention" to the changes that must take place. The report also stated that all disabled voters should be able to verify their votes, and that election officials and voting machine manufacturers should be charged with ensuring security measures. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Michael Newman said the panel has until July to create a set of standards to submit to the EAC.
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Spam Doubles, Finding New Ways to Deliver Itself
New York Times (12/06/06) P. A1; Stone, Brad

After being successfully foiled by anti-spam software to the point that they were no longer a major concern at the beginning of the year, spammers have found new techniques of flooding mailboxes and consuming bandwidth. Spam filtering firm Ironport claims that spam volumes worldwide have doubled from last year, and that junk email now makes up over 90 percent of emails sent. By embedding text in images, spammers found a loophole in spam-blocking technology, which scans traditional email text to detect telltale signs of spam. The use of botnets now makes blacklists unreliable as well as allows spammers to send more messages without being charged for generating the data traffic. Ironport's Patrick Peterson admits that, "The bad guys are simply outrunning most of the technology out there today." By adding speckles or flowery patterns to images where text was imbedded, spammers even confused programs designed to detect text in images. They have also developed a way to change just a few pixels in each email sent out, creating a unique "fingerprint" for each, so programs that identify a message as spam and eliminate all copies no longer work. Linking violators to incriminating Web sites has gotten more complicated, as the "pump and dump" technique is now quite popular; where spammers purchase cheap stock in an obscure firm, send out email advertising the stock, and sell when enough unsuspecting people buy the stock. Today's spammers operate out of Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia, according to expert, making them immune to strict U.S. anti-spam legislation.
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IT-User Services Staff Take Top SIGUCCS Award
UDaily (University of Delaware) (12/05/06) Hutchinson, Becca

A podcast, created by University of Delaware's IT-User Services department, that provides students having computer-related trouble with explanations that couldn't be expressed over the phone or even by detailed Web sites, received top honors in the promotional video/audio category at the ACM-Special Interest Group on University and College Computing Services (SIGUCCS) Conference, which took place Nov. 5-8, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The podcast, called "Consulting on Demand," was inspired by the frustration the department faced as a result of outdated troubleshooting practices, said IT-User Services manager Ronald Nichols. Begun last November, the project resulted in a two-part Web video that walked students through some of the more complicated aspects of connectivity in residence halls, and received over 1,000 hits during the student move-in period at the beginning of this school year. Given this initial success the department made and published Web videos on various cyber safety subjects. Videos submitted at the conference addressed subjects such as spam, encryption, and establishing a Web proxy.
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Carnegie Mellon Researchers Uncover Online Auction Fraud
AScribe Newswire (12/05/06)

By analyzing the publicly accessible transaction histories of online auction sites, Carnegie Mellon University researchers have been able to identify suspicious behavior and associations between users, using data mining techniques. These fraudsters, such as those who take money for the sale of an item and never mail it, accounted for 97,000 complaints passed along to law enforcement by the federal Internet Crime Complain Center, and can now be located and purged from auction sites. By identifying accomplices, the emergence of new fraudsters can be prevented as well. The system, known as Network Detection via Propagation of Beliefs (NetProbe), gives a numerical rating of trustworthiness that cannot be manipulated the way reputation systems used by the auction sites can be. Accomplices, who do not commit fraud directly, use their favorable reputation to boost the feedback ratings of fraudsters, but this can be detected using a graph of transactions, where users are represented as nodes and transactions as lines connecting the nodes. Researchers found that in such a graph the transactions completed between accomplices and fraudsters shows a "bipartite core," meaning one group has a great deal of transactions with another but none within its own group; the accomplice group also deals with honest users but mostly with fraudsters. This technique has been tested on massive sets of data and is currently being used to examine about a million eBay transactions.
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Civil Libertarians Protest Privacy Policy
Washington Post (12/06/06) P. A11; Nakashima, Ellen

New privacy regulations, and the board created to oversee them, are drawing criticism from various civil liberties groups, who have cited the protections guaranteed by the Privacy Act of 1974. Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Mark Rotenberg points out the "the absence of transparency, the absence of oversight, and the inability for individuals to know what information about them is being collected by the federal government." The guidelines, drafted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, state that information obtained on "U.S. persons" be done so legally, and be shared only if it is relevant to terrorism or law enforcement; however, the guidelines do not require that those affected be notified. Markle Foundation privacy task force member James Dempsey says the privacy regulations also fail to address data-collection standards or establish appropriate methods to deal with those who have been mistakenly targeted. The privacy board, which has only five members, is part of the executive branch and does not have the power of subpoena, causing civil libertarians to call for the establishment of a more independent, capable body. ACLU legislative director Caroline Fredrickson said the board has no power to alter policy on some of the most pertinent issues. Broader oversight of the government's data-mining policies and terrorism surveillance programs have been promised by Democrats poised to take over Congress next year.
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Segway Inventor Scoots to Bigger Matters
CNet (12/05/06) Wenzel, Elsa

Dean Kamen says his goal is to give "people better lives...in a substantial way," and his latest projects, a filtration system that can purify water from sewage and small generators that can produce electricity from any fuel, show his belief in technological innovation's power to make such changes. He laments the obsession of today's youth with sports and entertainment, hoping that projects such as the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) tournaments for school children he founded will make science and math equally exciting. He says that getting clean water to developing countries is the most pressing concern facing the world, and that venture capitalists currently have a great interest in "clean tech," but he hopes that this is not "a fad or a mood." The portable energy device, which is currently further along than the water purification system, has already been used in two villages in Bangladesh where cow dung, the only available fuel, was burned to provide electricity for 24 weeks. When asked about future energy technology, Kamen says that solar energy is only waiting for the transition that will make its implementation less expensive and more reliable, stressing the difficulty a single generation has in changing its ways. He says that his biggest fear is those who are anti-technology, who want to "replace this technology with no technology."
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Revival of the Supercomputer
EE Times (12/04/06) Merritt, Rick

DARPA is working with IBM's X10, Cray's Chapel, and Sun's Fortress languages in order to find an ideal language to simplify the increasingly intricate task of developing software for supercomputers. Sources indicate that one language could be picked outright, or a hybrid could be developed, but the decision should be made within 18 months. University of Tennessee supercomputer researcher Jack Dongarra says the Message Passing Interface (MPI) currently used on supercomputers "has just too much programming complexity to get it all right." The three languages submitted are intended to provide an enhanced view of complex systems to allow more efficient communication between diverse processors. University of Illinois professor Marc Snir, who helped design MPI, said of the three languages: "They are still in a primitive state, and there is no evidence yet they will be embraced by the application community." Snir says Cray's Chapel is based on data parallelism, making it the most like MPI, IBM's X10 brings in new ideas such as atomic data structures, and Sun's Fortress, which he calls "Matlab on steroids," would require the greatest alterations to compilers. Snir also points out that a programming language is only one of many problems facing supercomputer development, and expresses doubt that a hybrid of two or three of the languages in development will be the answer. He says MPI has already proven its ability to scale up to today's large systems, noting its deployment on one of IBM's BlueGene/L supercomputers. "We may need to reconvene to write minor enhancements," he says, "but we don't expect MPI to evolve significantly."
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UCF Researcher's 3-D Digital Storage System Could Hold a Library on One Disc
University of Central Florida (12/04/06) Kotala, Zenaida Gonzalez

University of Central Florida researchers have developed a method dubbed the Two-Photon 3D Optical Storage system that is able to record and store at least 1,000GB of data on multiple layers of a single disk. "For a while, the community has been able to record data in photocromatic materials in several layers," said UCF chemistry professor Kevin D. Belfield, who led the research. "The problem was that no one could figure out how to read out the data without destroying it. But we cracked it." The technology involves firing two different wavelengths of light onto the recording surface. By using two layers, the specific image created is sharper that any current technique can produce. The color (wavelength) of the light determines whether information is written on the disk or read from it, so a user can control what information remains intact. Beyond application in storing library or museum data, Belfield's department is experimenting with the ability of this technology to identify and treat certain types of cancer.
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Q&A: Responsible Disclosure of Vendor Flaws and What It Means
Computerworld (12/04/06) Vijayan, Jaikumar

Publicly disclosing vulnerabilities in software products is about increasing the pressure on software vendors to improve the security of their applications, according to vulnerability researcher H.D. Moore in an interview with Computerworld. Moore, who has been involved with the independent group of security researchers behind the controversial Metasploit Project, says the various initiatives he has undertaken were meant to raise awareness of flaws in software and the potential impact of the vulnerabilities on an organization. Though Moore and other independent security researchers have come under fire for making it easier for bad guys to exploit software vulnerabilities, he says his critics are not facing reality. He maintains that hackers exploiting the most problematic flaws are often caught before word of the vulnerability goes public. And he views responsible vulnerability disclosure as a flawed approach to software security because not disclosing flaws publicly does not necessarily mean software users will be safer. Moore believes his security efforts, from posting vulnerability information to releasing the Metasploit Framework tools, have largely been a success.
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Health Hazard: Computers Spilling Your History
New York Times (12/03/06) P. 3-1; Freudenheim, Milt; Pear, Robert

While health insurance companies, tech companies, and the U.S. government are all pushing to computerize the health records of Americans in order to improve the ability of the medical profession to share information in the name of making valuable advances, many people are wary of the potential risks of making such information widely available. A Markle survey found that 56 percent of respondents were very concerned about abuse by employers, though nearly all respondents were eager to experience the benefits Internet technology could bring to health care. Some employees fear they could lose their job due to expensive medical conditions, as such instances have been found to occur. In many cases, employees have the decision whether or not to submit their information to be put into an electronic database, but some companies are even offering small sums of money for those willing to cooperate. While most large companies claim that personnel professionals do not have access to medical information of employees, many suspect that there are companies where those in charge of insurance claims also handle hiring and firing decisions. Unfortunately, charges are rarely brought against those who illegally access medical records. Due to fears of lawsuits resulting from sharing data, American primary-care physicians make use of electronic health care information systems far less than their counterparts in England or in the Netherlands, according to the journal Health Affairs. The new Democratic Congress has already pledged to address this issue of privacy once it takes power next year, according to Rep. Edward J. Markey (Dem.-Mich.).
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Q&A: ITU Study Group Chair Talks About its Next Generation Network Initiative
Network World (12/04/06) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

John Visser, a Nortel exec serving as chairman of the International Telecommunication Union's Study Group 19, says ITU's Next Generation Network (NGN) global standards initiative is working to blur "the boundaries between traditional voice telecommunications, data and broadcast communications." With the blurring of boundaries between mobile and Internet usage, Visser says the goal of NGN is to see that "the services and how they function [are] not...influenced by the means of how you access them." NGN, which most major telecoms have already signed on with, will bring about "a coherent and well-integrated infrastructure," Visser says, featuring integrated services including voice, and reduced costs. In order for corporate networks to take advantage of NGN standards, Visser says "an IP backbone is essential," as well as "good data rates to the individual," and "solid database access." As far as mobility goes, he stressed the impact of tariffs and pricing set by providers, making this one concern that still needs to be worked out. He also added that security is priority number one for the NGN, and that it will support both IPv4 and IPv6.
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Supercomputers: Strength in Numbers
Age (Australia) (12/05/06) Karena, Cynthia

Australia made huge strides in e-research this year and hopes to experience even more success next year. A simulation program that used networked computers to boost computing power has enabled Monash University professor Amanda Lynch to obtain more in-depth analysis of what-if scenarios involving the impact of burning the savannah grasslands on the summer monsoons. Lynch used the Nimrod software to tap into the computing power of machines in the United States and Asia, and the massive number crunching performed on 1.6 TB of data left her with 100 different types of fire statistics. Meanwhile, the Victorian e-research strategic initiative (VeRSI) got underway in October and will spend $10 million to develop e-research applications. At Monash's e-Research Center, professor Ah Chung Tsoi is researching ways to manage the enormous amounts of data that supercomputers produce in an Archer project that would allow researchers to access and share information from a single Internet portal. "The uptake of e-research enables [scientists] to set up large databases in large collaborative environments," says Paul Davis, executive director of VeRSI. Australia has plans for eight e-research projects next year, including one that would allow researchers involved in the virtual beam line project at the national synchrotron in Melbourne to control instrumentation remotely from their desktop via a private, high-speed network.
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Interview With Web Guru Tim O'Reilly: 'We're Moving Into a New World'
Der Spiegel (12/04/06) Stocker, Christian

Tim O'Reilly, considered the father of the term Web 2.0, says he has gotten sick of the term and wishes it was understood as less of a dotcom-bubble-type fad, and more as "this idea of harnessing collective intelligence." He believes that "open source communities create a lot of value," and that programmers should not be, and are not, resentful about not being paid for their work that companies use to make money because they understand the benefit to their reputation. Wikipedia is an example of the way Web 2.0 is built around trust: While anyone can submit an article or make edits, there is a still an inner-circle of users who have proven their loyalty and integrity. He praises online information gathering projects for their attempts at accuracy, given that "anything we do is a selection of reality. That's a great source of disorder in our society." O'Reilly says the "wisdom of crowds" is somewhat represented by Google, which he calls "the furthest we've come toward artificial intelligence," and while individuals still make decisions based on the "quality of results," these decisions, which go against the Google system itself, sometimes turn out to be wrong. Pointing out that the best anti-spam measure is people's ability to identify it as spam, he says, "We're moving into a world that's not just about people expressing opinion--it is really about distributed data gathering and real time intelligence." O'Reilly does not fear the entrance of PR and advertising into sites like YouTube, because the success or survival of such services rest on their quality. When asked about predicting the next buzzword to have the impact of Web 2.0, he spoke of a new magazine he is helping to create called "Make," which will focus on the interaction of computing with the physical world, such as custom manufacturing, synthetic biology, and the democratization of these types of advances.
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Open-Source Spying
New York Times Magazine (12/03/06) P. 54; Thompson, Clive

There is a glut of chatter for intelligence agencies to sift through to find evidence of terrorist plots or other kinds of criminal activity, and it is hoped that wikis or blogs might help ease the burden and revolutionize analysis. The idea was spawned from an essay written by Calvin Andrus of the CIA's Center for Mission Innovation, which posited that it is the explosion of self-publishing in which the real power of the Internet resides; Andrus noted that blogs and wikis are self-organizing, and theorized that if agents or analysts posted blogs and wikis on the Intelink network, then mob intelligence would ensue and facilitate a democratic process of information sharing. Perhaps even more significantly, the blogs and wikis could substantially enhance Intelink's search engines. With such an approach, clues of a terrorist plot such as the one responsible for the 9/11 bombing would inexorably come together and gain authority in the intelligence community, Andrus suggested. A wiki's usefulness to intelligence analysis is being tested with Intellipedia, a prototype wiki for intelligence employees; agents are encouraged to add to the wiki's content, which consists of hundreds of articles from nonclassified documents. Thomas Fingar with the office of the director of national intelligence (DNI) admits that Intellipedia will not eliminate the likelihood of false or erroneous reportage, but he thinks a sufficient number of contributing analysts will catch major mistakes. Meanwhile, DNI CIO Dale Meyerrose directed the creation of a test blog for intelligence collection. New York University professor Clay Shirky says the success of "social software" for intelligence agencies depends on convincing thousands of analysts to start blogging and producing wikis, and key to this will be shifting agents' secretive mindset to one that is more open to sharing. But there are concerns that such an approach could expose potentially dangerous information to the wrong people.
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Tomorrow's Security Today
InformationWeek (12/04/06)No. 1117, P. 45; Greenemeier, Larry

Under development today are future security technologies that stand out in terms of their proactivity. The linkage between physical and IT security technologies is a central component of video surveillance, and upcoming innovations in this domain include IBM's Smart Surveillance middleware, which embeds analytical capabilities into camera, chemical-sensor, radar, and audio surveillance systems for the detection of suspicious activity; 3VR Security CEO Stephen Russell says the market for recording and managing video surveillance was revolutionized by the storage of digital video on hard drives. Jeff Platon with Cisco Security Solutions says the next few years will see the availability of technology that can match images of employees and visitors with video footage of people walking through a business' front door, once facial-recognition software improves. Standards for protecting systems and data from outside attacks and physical theft are under development by the Trusted Computing Group: Examples include the Trusted Network Connect standards for network access control technology and the Trusted Platform Module for the special storage of user credentials off the hard drive. Wave Systems CEO Steven Sprague predicts that within a decade, "You will authenticate the human being to the machine, and the machine will authenticate you to the network." Advanced fingerprint authentication solutions from the likes of Nanoident Technologies are also on the horizon. The biometric sensors Nanoident makes can reportedly scan prints, tissue structure, and hemoglobin levels, while CEO Klaus Schroeter says the wide implementation of fingerprint authentication technology requires an upgrade in accuracy. Around the close of the decade, companies will be capable of ascertaining whether criminals can blend together seemingly harmless pieces of information about clients, employees, and partners to access sensitive data through innovations pioneered by groups such as the Palo Alto Research Center's security and privacy research unit, which is working on privacy monitoring software with a data inference assessment application.
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Software Fault Avoidance Issues
Ubiquity (12/04/06) Vol. 7, No. 46, Saha, Goutam Kumar

Center for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) scientist and ACM Ubiquity associate editor Goutam Kumar Saha highlights various issues of software fault avoidance, which is a methodology to generate fault-free software via techniques designed to lower the occurrence of latent defects in software programs. Software fault avoidance strategies outlined by the author include verification and validation, software testing, and proof methodology. Fault avoidance seeks the prevention of flaws cropping up in the operational system through fault prevention (eliminating the likelihood of faults occurring in a system before it is up and running), fault removal (pinpointing and removing the causes of errors), and fault forecasting (a series of methods for removing the presence, creation, and consequence of faults). Fault prevention can be facilitated through quality control techniques applied during the design and construction of hardware and software, examples of which include structured programming, information hiding, modularization, rigorous design rules, training, rigorous maintenance procedures, and firewalls. Saha writes that reducing the probability of faults occurring is the purpose of fault avoidance techniques, while maintaining system operations despite the presence of faults is the goal of fault tolerance techniques; tolerance techniques include exception handling, watchdog timers, assertions, acceptability checks, reasonableness checks, design diversity, and data diversity. The author lists a number of software fault avoidance rules that should be adhered to irrespective of the type of installed software-structure. These rules include the specification and analysis of all requirements via formal techniques; the debugging and stabilization of the specification document prior to the component development; the creation of a problem-solving protocol; the formalization of all verification, validation, and tests that reveals the absence of correlated faults; and the rigorous testing of all specifications, design, and code. The use of robust design concepts in conjunction with fault avoidance techniques during software system design can help avoid faults caused by environmental changes or failure caused by latent defects, according to Saha.
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Send in the Terminator
Scientific American (12/06) Vol. 295, No. 6, P. 37; Stix, Gary

Microsoft has found several termination bugs in drivers in its upcoming Vista version of Windows using its new Terminator tool. Developed by Microsoft Research, Terminator is designed to check for bugs by proving that a driver has completed its task. Terminator marks a breakthrough for an industry that has mathematical proof that an algorithm verifying that a program has run to completion could not be created, in the form of research from mathematician Alan Turing. "Turing proved that the problem was undecidable, and in some sense, that scared people off," says Byron Cook, a theoretical computer scientist at Microsoft Research in the Cambridge laboratory who headed the Terminator project. Microsoft has been using the automated verification tool for nine months, but outside developers of Windows device drivers have not had access to it. Proofs for 99.9 percent of commercial programs that finish executing may be found using Terminator one day, Cook believes. Still, Terminator does not prove that Turing was wrong. "There will always be an input to Terminator that you can't prove will terminate," adds Cook.
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Philanthropy's New Prototype
Technology Review (12/06) Vol. 109, No. 5, P. 48; Surowiecki, James

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative echoes the spirit of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's library-building effort of encouraging local participation in the hope of getting people to sign on for free access to knowledge, in this case via a super-cheap laptop. The OLPC project is the brainchild of MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte, who hopes to bridge the "digital divide" between Internet haves and have-nots by giving all children in the developing world laptops that cost just $100 to build and $30 a year to own and run. The design and marketing of the $100 laptop is the responsibility of the OLPC nonprofit, while its construction will be handled by an outside manufacturer. For the moment, governments will be responsible for purchasing the computers. The technical requirements of the $100 laptop include: Ruggedness, functionality even in the absence of a steady power supply, easy Internet access and networking, and a cheap, readable display; designers claim to have met some of the most difficult challenges, including power generated by a foot pedal or pull string, linkage of the computers into a mesh network, and provision of an approximately $35 screen with a high-resolution black-and-white mode as well as a backlit, lower-resolution color mode. The first working models of the laptop will be tested in five developing nations, but even successful tests are unlikely to ease Negroponte's job of convincing governments to purchase the machines. But if the OLPC effort works, it will help usher in a new philanthropic model that stresses the funding of projects in areas where both business and government have failed to provide a critical need, and that concentrates more on the social returns that investments in charities yield. OLPC embraces the "high-engagement philanthropy" model by working within the market in its outsourcing of the laptop's manufacture to companies that expect to earn profits, while its reliance on three distinct types of enterprises--private companies, nonprofits, and governments--is another differentiating factor; in addition, OLPC is taking on activist responsibility in its goal of persuading governments to buy the technology.
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