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ACM TechNews
June 22, 2007

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Welcome to the June 22, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Computer Privacy Expert Warns of Growing Risks to Social Security Numbers
AScribe Newswire (06/21/07)

Ana I. Anton, representing ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee, testified Thursday before the House of Representative's Subcommittee on Social Security that the theft of social security numbers (SSNs) has become the primary method used to steal an individual's identity, allowing criminals to fraudulently access and open credit cards, banking accounts, and other financial services. Anton urged Congress to strengthen SSN privacy and reduce the nation's reliance on SSNs for personal identification. Anton, an associate professor of software engineering at North Carolina State University, cited the fact that more than 36 million Americans have had their identities stolen since 2003, and more than 155 million personal records have been compromised since 2005. Anton said, "Two key factors have enabled the explosion of identity theft in today's environment. One is the common use of SSNs as a de facto national identification number; the other is current computing technology that enables the collection, exchange, analysis, and use of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization." Anton urged banks, credit agencies, and government agencies to require stronger proof of identity, such as passports, military IDs, or licenses with a photograph to verify personal identity, after which a secondary authenticator, such as a secret shared password or PIN, should be used for subsequent transactions. Anton also suggested removing and prohibiting the display of SSNs in public records, requiring secure or encrypted transmission of records or documents containing SSNs and other personally identifiable information, requiring electronic security for files and devices containing SSNs, and substituting a unique number generated by the database management system to replace SSNs as the primary key in databases. To read Anton's complete testimony, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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E-Vote 'Threat' to UK Democracy
BBC News (06/22/07)

An Open Rights Group (ORG) report says the risk involved with replacing paper ballots for touch screens far outweighs any benefit that may result from the change. The group, which based its conclusions on observations of local elections' e-voting trials in May, said until e-voting is made more reliable, easier to oversee, and has proven its integrity, it should not be used. Observations made during local elections using e-voting in England and elections using electronic counting systems in Scotland led the ORG to express "serious concerns" about e-voting. In England, kiosks, laptops, touch screens, and mobile phones have all been tested for e-voting systems. The ORG's primary concern is that e-voting is currently a "black box" system that prevents voters from seeing how their votes are recorded or counted, which the ORG argues makes election oversight impossible and wide open to error and fraud. The report criticized the lack of a rigorous certification method to ensure hardware and software systems are well protected. The report also called for usability testing to ensure the elderly and housebound can easily access e-voting schemes. The ORG said it was a serious mistake to accept the conveniences of e-voting while ignoring the risk that such systems could destroy confidence in voting as a whole, and that all e-voting trials should be stopped so problems can be fixed before e-voting is more widely used.
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Workshop Explores Integrating CS Into Undergrad Curriculum
HPC Wire (06/20/07)

A weeklong workshop at the Ohio Supercomputer Center will teach 19 professors from the United States and Puerto Rico how to integrate computer science into undergraduate curriculums. The "Integrating Computational Science into the Undergraduate Curriculum Workshop" is one of 11 hands-on, summer seminars on campuses across the country sponsored by SC07, an international conference sponsored by ACM and the IEEE Computer Society. Each of the seminars address the use of computational science and cyberinfrastructure in education. Steve Gordon, lead instructor for the workshop and director of the Ralph Regula School of Computational Science, an initiative of the Ohio Supercomputer Center, said computational science's ability to solve complex business, technical, and academic research problems has made it as important to scientific discovery as theory and experimentation. "The diversity of the professors attending out workshop showcases the pervasiveness of computational science," Gordon said. "Attendees represent a breadth of disciplines, including astronomy, chemistry, biology, pharmacy, engineering, computer science and natural sciences." Workshop participants will prepare or adapt at least one instructional module and develop an implementation plan for their classroom. Participants will also receive continued support from a mentor to incorporate computational science in their classrooms during the academic year. For more information about SC07, visit http://sc07.supercomputing.org/
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School Fills Need for Game Designers
Inside Bay Area (CA) (06/18/07) Aaronson, Sean

The video game industry has become one of the most lucrative fields in entertainment, with game industry revenues rivaling Hollywood, but video game education has not kept pace with the industry. "I think schools are a little behind the times," said Josiah Pisciotta, owner of computer-game company Chronic Logic. However, some schools have recently developed programs designed to teach the art and science of video games. The University of California Santa Cruz's four-year undergraduate degree in game design was quickly embraced by students. Although fewer than 10 students graduated with a video game degree this year, 90 freshman have already enrolled in the program for next year. By comparison, only 30 students have enrolled in the traditional computer science program. University of Southern California also has a four-year video game program. The UCSC program combines courses from computer science with digital arts and films. The degree requires students to take five computer science classes, five electives, complete a design seminar their senior year, and an ethics course to address the often violent nature of video games. While the programs have been successful, not everyone in the industry believes that teaching video game design at universities is a good idea. Jack Emmert, the creative director for video-game company Cryptic Studios, said students are misguided if they think they can learn game design in an academic setting. "It�s premature for universities to sell degrees when the industry hasn't even figured out what the skill set is to be a successful game designer," Emmert said.
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One Easy Fix for Immigration
Business Week (06/21/07) Herbst, Moira

Talented foreigners come to the United States looking for the chance to start their own business, only to be frustrated by protracted waits to receive residency status--sometimes six or seven years long--and tempted by more lucrative opportunities in other countries. "Increasingly, they're getting fed up and going home," observes Duke University Pratt School of Engineering professor Vivek Wadwha, who adds that this situation is particularly tough on aspiring tech entrepreneurs, who have a limited window of opportunity to launch their businesses due to cutthroat competition. Wadwha has studied the problem extensively, and concluded that master's and doctorate degree holders--especially those with math, technology, science, and engineering degrees--are most likely to start new businesses. There also appears to be little correlation between these entrepreneurs and the pedigree of the schools they graduate from. "What was surprising is that it doesn't really matter which schools they come," Wadwha says. Wadwha calculates that 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies founded in the United States between 1995 and 2005 had at least one key foreign-born founder, and produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 people. There is a major lack of consensus over the ultimate fate of millions of low-skilled illegal immigrants already in the country, which could only further erode the chances of improving the situation for highly skilled workers. Experts suggest that the United States should retool its immigration policy and make a greater effort to draw highly educated workers, for instance by admitting all foreign-born students who receive advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.
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SIGMETRICS 2007 Panel at FCRC
My Slice of Pizza (06/19/07) Metoo

At the SIGMETRICS panel at ACM's Federated Computing Research Conference several industry experts spoke about the successes and challenges of performance modeling and on being researchers in industrial labs. Cathy Xia from IBM described the life of a researcher at IBM and the history of queuing theory systems, providing performance modeling for Web services as an example. The next speaker, Albert Greenberg from Microsoft, offered a near-live demo of Microsoft tools and discussed how almost every aspect of computer science research was represented and relevant. Shubho Sen from AT&T expressed the difficulty in managing large IP networks. Arif Merchant from Hewlett-Packard said that traditional disk modeling methods are inaccurate for large data centers, and that detailed modeling is necessary. The audience asked questions, among others, about how to succeed in labs, does industrial lab work compromise research principles, and what are the challenges in reaching product production. The panel answered that basically research labs provide great research careers, but do not provide the flexibility to work on problems that could win medals and prizes, although most labs encourage researchers to develop their own ideas.
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Searching Sportscasts
Technology Review (06/21/07) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a new visual-search engine capable of automatically searching sports footage for specific types of action and events. MIT computer scientist Michael Fleischman says that despite advances in visual-search engines, accurate video search is still challenging, particularly with sports footage. "The difference between a home run and a foul ball is often hard for a human novice to notice, and nearly impossible for a machine to recognize," Fleischman says. Some systems use automatic speech recognition to improve search accuracy by generating text transcripts, but search terms are often repeated out of context, particularly in sporting events when commentators frequently talk about previous events regardless of what is happening in the current game. To compensate for this problem, Fleischman and Deb Roy, director of MIT's Cognitive Machines Group, developed a system that can associate search terms with video footage, not just the audio track. "We collect hundreds of hours of baseball games and automatically encode all the video based on features, such as how much grass is visible and whether there is cheering in the background," Fleischman says. Using machine-learning algorithms, the researchers analyzed the video clips to find events that were defined by the type of camera shots used, like a camera panning up and then back down for a fly ball. The system then tries to match these events to words that appear in the transcript text by examining its probabilistic distribution. Fleischman and Roy say the initial trails, searching through six baseball games for home runs, showed promise.
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How the U.S. Has Kept the Productivity Playing Field Tilted to Its Advantage
New York Times (06/21/07) P. C3; Goolsbee, Austan

Recent evidence from the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics suggests that the United States makes better use of information technology than any other country and as a result has the world's most productive workers. The popular explanation for the United States' high productivity is the low cost of information technology. Lower computer prices foster a rapid adoption of technology, boosting productivity. However, John Van Reenen, a professor London School of Economics, notes that technology prices in Europe have dropped as well, and technology has been utilized just as much as in the United States, but that Europe has not seen a productivity boom. Van Reenen suggests that Americans are simply better at adapting to and utilizing new technology. Van Reenen's paper, "Americans Do I.T. Better: U.S. Multinationals and the Productivity Miracle," examines the experience of British companies when taken over by companies with headquarters in other countries. In the huge service sectors, such as financial services, retail trade, and wholesale trade, American takeovers caused a huge productivity advantage over a non-American takeover. When an American company takes over a business, the business becomes significantly better at translating technology spending into productivity. American companies in the service-based economy have proven to be incredibly able to adapt and incorporate new technology. The main concern is if such an advantage will last. Van Reenen predicts two possible outcomes. The first is that the productivity boom of the last 10 years was an aberration that allowed the United States to take advantage of lower computer prices to pull away from the competition. The other scenario is that the 1990s represent a fundamental shift in the global economy and those best able to adjust to changing will flourish in the 21st century
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Chip Maker Intel Shows Off R&D Projects
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (06/21/07) Boslet, Mark

Intel's annual research day, on June 20, presented projects that included energy-saving technology for laptops, a chip to prevent online gamers from cheating, more compact antennas for wireless computer network connections, and an overall theme that computing is entering a more personal age with new ways for humans and computers to interact. Justin Rattner, who helps oversee Intel's $5.4 billion research-and-development budget, said he believes that computers will soon be able to recognize human expressions and react accordingly. "What we're starting to look at is fusing the virtual with the physical," Rattner said. Speaking computers that can listen and respond are also possible, even if the vocabulary might be limited and content restricted. Rattner's research group is focused on creating technology for "ultra-mobile devices," or small, lightweight devices that have significant computing power. Despite a focus on new products, the majority of the research projects displayed are still several years away from the market. One such project was "Mashmaker," which offers a way to combine data from multiple Web sites onto a single page. Mashmaker could be used to combine apartment listing sites with the yellow pages so an apartment hunter could see what apartments are available near restaurants or other places of interest.
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Xerox Tool Analyzes Text to Improve Search Results
IDG News Service (06/20/07) Sayer, Peter

A new search tool from Xerox is able to yield better results by trying to understand the content of documents. FactSpotter is designed to analyze the grammar of a text so that it can determine which words ambiguous nouns, verbs, or pronouns refer to, according to Frederique Segond, manager of the parsing and semantics research group at Xerox Research Center Europe near Grenoble, France. For example, FactSpotter would realize that the "he" and "the head of Microsoft" in the same document is likely to refer to the same person, "Bill Gates," and would not confuse "Bill Gates said" with "a friend of Bill Gates said" and return irrelevant results like other search engines. Xerox wrote FactSpotter in the C programming language, and it can interface with other applications via modules in Java and Python. The company is working to expand its analysis capabilities beyond the written language to include searches of radio or TV archives when linked with audio transcription tools. Xerox researchers created a metalanguage to describe the grammar of various languages, including English, French, and Spanish, and are developing a Japanese metalanguage description in conjunction with Fujitsu.
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Hitachi: Move the Train With Your Brain
Associated Press (06/22/07) Tabuchi, Hiroko

Researchers at Hitachi's Advanced Research Laboratory in Hatoyama, Japan, have developed the "brain-machine interface," a device that uses optical topography technology to enable people to control electronic devices using their thoughts. The device analyzes slight changes in the brain's blood flow and translates brain activity into electric signals. In a demonstration, a reporter wearing the device's cap, which connected to a control computer and a toy train set, was able to start and stop the toy train by performing calculations in her head. Optical topography sends a small amount of infrared light through the brain's surface to monitor changes in blood flow. Traditionally such technology has been reserved for medical uses, but Hitachi's scientists are striving to refine the technology for commercial use. The company is ready to develop a TV remote that lets users turn a television on or off and change the channels only by thinking, and the technology could eventually replace remote controls and keyboards and help disabled and paralyzed people operate electric wheelchairs, beds, and artificial limbs. The brain-machine interface does not require an implant, like some earlier technologies did, but the interface still needs to be adjusted to more accurately detect intentional signals and ignore background brain activity.
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Security Study Pokes Holes in Advanced Authentication Claims
Ars Technica (06/20/07) Hruska, Joel

A new study by researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology raises concerns about the potential effectiveness of image authentication systems, which banks consider to offer better security protection than simple passwords. Image authentication systems reportedly offer an additional layer of security, as users are presented with an image that was previously chosen, usually when passport input is required. For the study the researchers divided the participants into three groups. The first group was told they were doing normal banking activities on a Sunday afternoon, while the second group was told to focus on security. The third group used their own user ID and passwords at the Web site of their own bank. The researchers tested the response of the participants when the login showed "https://" rather than "http://," and all 63 users provided their login data and password. Next, image authentication images were removed and replaced with a generic "this service is being upgraded" tag, and 58 out of 60 participants continued and entered their data. Finally, the researchers created a dramatic warning page that said the security certificate for the Web site may not be safe, and 30 out of 57 people still proceeded to log in. Broken down by group, the results reveal that 22 of the second group continued despite the warning page, and eight of 14 using their own information did so as well. The research shows that 97 percent of the participants entered their login information and continued when they were provided with a clear message that there were problems with the image authentication system and that it may not be secure.
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Storing Light
Technology Review (06/20/07) Bullis, Kevin

High-speed computing and communications could be enabled by a minuscule light storage device developed by Cornell University researchers led by electrical and computer engineering professor Michal Lipson. The device employs an optically controlled "gate" that can be opened and closed to store and emit light, which could impose control over the order and timing of data transmission. The gate mechanism is a pair of silicon rings sandwiched between two parallel silicon tracks, and the ability to trap the light in the rings--as well as release it--is derived from the researchers' discovery that the rings can be tuned to divert different colors by striking them with a brief light pulse. MIT physics professor Marin Soljacic reports that the Cornell researchers' breakthrough is important because it facilitates the storage of light in a very small device under ambient conditions. Thus far the rings can only trap a portion of a pulse of light, resulting in the loss of any data encoded in the shape of the general pulse. Furthermore, the length of storage time is limited under the current arrangement, according to Lipson. MIT computer science professor Mehmet Yanik says the first problem can be addressed through the compression of the pulse and the employment of a cascade of rings, while Lipson says the amplification of the light signal following its release from the rings may solve the second problem.
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Panelist Notes Politics of Putting Agency Information Online
National Journal's Technology Daily (06/19/07) Sternstein, Aliya

OpenTheGovernment.org executive director Patrice McDermott participated in a workshop to convince the technology community that politics plays a significant role in the government's underutilization of the Internet. The workshop, sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Web Science Research Initiative and held at the National Academy of Sciences, united government officials, computer scientists, academics, Web standards leaders, and government vendors in an effort to facilitate the deployment of Web standards across government Web sites, help create research agendas, and guide officials in creating Web policy that increases access to government information. Members of the technology community want the government to explore the "Semantic Web" to provide deeper content analysis, but McDermott said she would like to see the government use Web 1.0 first. McDermott said that at the workshop attendees told her the government only needs to make databases available online, and the online community will reformat the content so it is compatible with new technologies. "What the people in there--mostly technology people--don't understand is that it's not just a resource decision, it's a political decision to expose that information," McDermott said. "It's really more the politics than the policy."
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Distributed Sensing
CIO (06/14/07) Hapgood, Fred

The concept of distributed sensing involves networking large numbers of sensing points, fixed, mobile, or both, to collect and analyze data, sharing information and results among all sensing points. An example might be networking home weather stations in a neighborhood to form a small-scale weather reading. Another is using GPS in cars to monitor the routes driven by people to provide better driving instructions online. One of distributed sensing's greatest potential benefits is to make urban planning, traffic engineering, and crowd control far more empirical. Distributed sensing could help capture, preserve, and record historically and scientifically important information that currently goes unrecorded, such as the acoustic levels people experience throughout their day to the way a city changes landscapes and buildings over decades, by integrating sensor networks into devices that people already carry such as cell phones. The Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA has been investigating network architecture and has found that distributed sensors need to be capable of monitor themselves. A remote sensing network needs to be able to examine each sensor's position and settings, much like how a microphone needs to be properly oriented and adjusted. The sensors need to be able to collect and use information on themselves to evaluate inputs and reset configurations when needed. The network should be capable of verifying the time and location of collected information and be able to verify the reliability and accuracy of the source.
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U.S. Science Policy: Congress Splits Over Plan to Consolidate Intelligence Research
Science (06/22/07) Vol. 316, No. 5832, P. 1693; Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit

Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Michael McConnell has proposed combining existing U.S. research and development programs at 14 agencies into a new organization. Based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the proposed Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) would combine the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center at the CIA, the Advanced Research and Development Activity at the NSA, and the National Technology Alliance at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. McConnell said the unified research program will stimulate long-term research for gathering and analyzing intelligence that currently does not fit the mission of any particular agency. "We are in a rut right now, turning the crank on the same technologies," said IARPA acting director Steven Nixon. Although the plan has received a mixed reaction in the House, it has more support in the Senate. "We think IARPA can fill in gaps between the needs of single agencies," said a Senate aide. "It's an invalid concern that IARPA is suddenly going to become the program manager for all the science that's done by the intelligence community." The IARPA would sponsor and provide grants for basic and applied academic research on intelligence-related issues such as machine translation of foreign languages, pattern recognition, and quantum encryption. University of California computer scientist Mark Steyvers says current programs funded by the CIA and NSA are designed to produce immediate results, while he predicts IARPA-funded research would stimulate "exciting new collaborations" among various research fields that could offer broad applicability.
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Murky Trade in Bugs Plays Into the Hands of Hackers
New Scientist (06/16/07) Vol. 194, No. 2608, P. 30; Biever, Celeste

Computer security consultant Charlie Miller believes the security of the Internet could be improved if researchers were offered financial incentives to search for and report software bugs, as the increasing complexity of software has made finding such vulnerabilities tougher and more time-consuming. As a result, many "white-hat" hackers no longer feel bragging rights alone are enough compensation for bug-hunting, which only serves to improve the chances of "black hat" hackers finding and exploiting the bugs for criminal purposes. Companies are offering money for zero-day bugs, which they use to create patches for customers who use their anti-intrusion products, but Miller says a typical payoff from these firms--estimated by University of Cambridge researcher Andy Ozment to be between $2,000 and $10,000--is not enough to coax the top researchers to seek out bugs. Compensation for bugs is based on the severity of the vulnerability as judged by the buyer, which requires the bug hunters to disclose all their information on the bug to the company before an offer is made. This is a situation where Miller says the researcher has "no leverage at all." Compounding the problem is the existence of a black market for bugs run by malevolent hackers willing to pay top dollar, which can be a great temptation for researchers who feel they are not being fairly compensated. One alternative to offering more money for bugs is for companies to be more honest about how much they are willing to pay, giving researchers a clearer picture of how much a bug is worth before attempting to sell it. Rainer Bohme of Germany's Dresden University of Technology says such a strategy could also encourage firms to produce less buggy software.
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