Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 20, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Thousands Face Mix-Ups in Voter Registrations
Washington Post (10/18/08) P. A1; Flaherty, Mary Pat

New state voter registration systems across the U.S. are incorrectly rejecting voters and threatening to disrupt the election process. The problems are occurring in states that switched from locally managed lists of voters to statewide databases, a change required by the Help America Vote Act. Although the switch is supposed to be a more efficient and accurate way to keep lists up to date, the transition is causing the systems to question the registrations of thousands of voters when discrepancies occur between their registration information and other official records. In Alabama, for example, dozens of voters are being labeled as convicted felons due to incorrect lists, and Michigan is scrambling to restore thousands of names it illegally removed from voter rolls due to residency questions. In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of voters could be affected, as officials admit that their database is wrong one out of every five times it flags a voter, often due to data discrepancies such as a middle initial or a typo in a birth date. Herbert Lin, who is studying the issue for the federal Election Assistance Commission, says that states are not using the "best scientific knowledge known today," as required by law. One of the problems with Wisconsin's database, which has been in place since August, is that 95,000 voters are incorrectly listed as being 108 years old. If no birth date was available when names were moved into the electronic system, it automatically assigned Jan. 1, 1900. By federal law, anyone whose name is flagged must be notified and given a chance to prove his or her eligibility, but voting rights experts say voters are not always alerted, and some, even if they are notified, may simply decide to skip the election as a result.
View Full Article - May Require Free Registration | Return to Headlines


5 Early Recommendation Technologies That Could Shake Up Their Niches
Read Write Web (10/16/08) Kirkpatrick, Marshall

Strands has announced the five finalists in the Strands $100,000 Call for Recommender Start-Ups. The finalists will present their ideas at ACM's International Conference on Recommender Systems, which takes place October 23-25, in Lausanne, Switzerland. The contest winner receives a $100,000 investment from Strands. The five finalists include Gravity R&D, a four-person team from Budapest University of Technology in Hungary that has developed a "magic button" that can provide TV viewers with instant, personalized entertainment at any time. The system automatically schedules recordings with the highest probability of user's interest. Another four-person team, Sentimetrix, from the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Sciences, developed a system that analyzes text content across the Web to find and quantify opinions in the text. Iletken is a project built by four Turkish college students at Koc University that balances personal and social behavior to recommend advertisements based on relevance. Reccoon is a stealth project by Peter Tegelaar and Dominiek ter Heide in the Netherlands, which appears to use the iPhone's GPS, user attention data such as Last.fm listening history, and the GeoNames Reverse lookup API to notify users when they are near the location of an event they might want to participate in. Finally, a four-person team from two Australian universities has developed the Commendo project, which uses recommendation technologies to optimize the drug design process in the pharmaceutical industry.


Intelligent Programs Protect Your Computer Environment
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (10/14/08)

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed a multi-agent system capable of detecting computer intrusions and autonomously deciding the best course of action. UC3M professor Agustin Orfila says both of these features are desirable in an intrusion detection system (IDS). Orfila says the innovation behind the new system is the use of deliberative agents capable of adapting to the surroundings and situations they are confronted with, using their past success in an independent manner to decide whether or not they should respond when facing a suspect event. This capability is achieved through the use of a quantitative model that weighs the loss that intrusion would cause against the cost of taking a responsive action. Orfila says that this autonomous judgment enables the IDS to determine the best system configuration for each scenario and decide if a response is appropriate, quantifying to what extent IDS supports the calculated decision. Orfila says that an agent should be reactive, sociable, self-initiating, adaptive, and mobile, all with the final result of representing a person. "In this way, the IDS multi-agent architecture allows us to distribute the detection load and better coordinate the process, with the consequence of accomplishing a more efficient detection," he says.


Genome Database Will Link genes, Traits in Public View
Washington Post (10/18/08) P. A1; Nakashima, Ellen

Harvard University genetics professor George Church is attempting to build the first public genomic database that would connect a person's genes with specific diseases. Church believes that the database will enable scientists to more easily correlate millions of genetic variants with medical and other traits. If successful, he says the database could usher in a new era of personalized medicine that could enable anyone to submit their own genetic blueprint and know what diseases may lurk in their future, allowing them to change their lifestyle and possibly avoid the diseases. A better understanding of genes could lead to more effective drugs, and couples could learn what disease may affect their children before they have them. Eventually, scientists may even be able to alter the dangerous genes. Some consider Church's vision to be the darker side of genetic knowledge, as such a database could be used against participants. For example, insurance companies could refuse to provide coverage to risky people, a child could learn he or she will be affected by a terrible disease before it is necessary, or a criminal could even craft synthetic DNA using a genetic code in the database and place it at a crime scene. Meanwhile, privacy advocates and civil libertarians are concerned over how gene-behavior links could be applied to large DNA database assembled by law enforcement, which can include samples from people arrested but not convicted. The database is scheduled to go online on October 20, with Church and nine other volunteers, known as the "PGP 10," releasing their genomic data and traits profiles to the public. As part of the project, Harvard undergraduate Xiaodi Wu is working on a software tool that Church calls the "Traitomatic," which is capable of displaying disease predispositions in order of severity.


ACM Experts See Opportunities and Risks for E-Voting
AScribe Newswire (10/15/08)

Three experts from ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) will be monitoring the reliability of electronic-voting equipment as the U.S. Election Day approaches. "Several recent electoral experiences have demonstrated that convenience and speed of vote counting are no substitute for accuracy of results and voter confidence that their vote was cast as counted," says USACM chair Eugene Spafford. "Today's e-voting infrastructure may not be up to the task but tomorrow's could be--if the technology is engineered and tested carefully, and deployed with safeguards against failure." Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University, says that USACM has worked at all levels, from Federal boards down to local polling places, to ensure that effective safeguards are in place and used by computer-based systems. He says that voting technologies that employ software-independent verification systems are the key to building voter trust. He also says a physical record is needed to protect against bugs and malicious code, because it will allow voters to verify that their votes have been accurately cast and it will provide an audit trail if necessary. Spafford also recommends that voting systems be independently tested by qualified technical experts. Other ACM experts include former ACM president Barbara Simons and USACM member Harry Hochheiser, professor of Computer Information Sciences at Towson University.


Scientist Develops Programme to Understand Alien Languages
Telegraph.co.uk (10/15/08) Alleyne, Richard

Leeds Metropolitan University researcher John Elliot is working on a computer program that could help identify and possibly translate messages from alien life. Elliot says his program would compare an alien language to a database of 60 known languages to determine if any have a similar structure. Elliot believes that even an alien language will have recognizable patterns that could help reveal the alien's intelligence level. Previous research has shown that it is possible to determine if a signal carries a language instead of an image or music. Elliot has advanced this research by devising a way to pick out what could be words and sentences. All human languages have functional terms that bracket phrases, such as "if" and "but" in English, and Elliot says that these terms are separated by up to nine words or characters. The limit on phrase length seems to correspond to how much information humans can process at once. Analyzing phrase length in an alien language could determine how intelligent the authors of the message are. The program also should be able to divide a language into crucial words such as nouns and verbs, even if their meaning is unknown. For example, the program can locate adjectives because they are almost always next to nouns.


San Diego Supercomputer Center and UCSD Announce 'Triton Resource'
UCSD News (10/14/08) Zverina, Jan

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) plans to build the Triton Resource, a high-impact, massive data analysis and storage system designed to accelerate innovation, collaboration, and discovery through the use of leading-edge research cyberinfrastructure. Specific details are still being defined by a committee of technical specialists to achieve the best balance of storage, computing power, and memory. The committee wants to allow major elements to be easily integrated into campus laboratories by taking advantage of UCSD's 10 Gigabit research network. Full details of Triton Resource will be released over the next few months, and the first run is scheduled for early 2009. "UC San Diego is building 21st century campus research infrastructure to accelerate 21st century research and education," says SDSC director Fran Berman. "The Triton Resource is a unique environment that will facilitate our ability to make sense of the tsunami of data available to us, and drive solutions of the most challenging problems in science and society." The Triton Resource will provide UCSD researchers with three key components. The Data Oasis storage system will assist in the manipulation of data across high-bandwidth paths to researchers throughout UCSD and the statewide UC system. The Petascale Data Analysis Facility will be able to analyze data from the new generation of petascale computers, and the scalable, shared-resource cluster will be equipped with standard computer nodes and enhanced memory capability.


Dynamic Programming Futures
IDG News Service (10/13/08) Wayner, Peter

Dynamic programming languages such as Ruby on Rails, JavaScript, Perl, and Python have achieved sufficient critical mass to succeed and thrive in the future, but experts say the nature of one's business and the structure of one's data are more important considerations than coolness when it comes to choosing a language platform. The future evolution of scripting languages will be guided by 10 principles, including the reduced importance of semantic barriers as the languages scramble to pinch good concepts off each other, the growing dominance of frameworks, and the rising value of communities. Another factor shaping scripting languages is the evolution of applications into their own worlds, while the Web and the cloud are emerging as the conclusive platform. Improved language technology will lead to significant performance gains, and the life of dynamic code will be extended by emulation and cross-compilation. Another key principle is the penetration of programming into Web applications through embedding, while the relevance of dynamic programming could be greatly reduced by the advent of amateur programmers. Finally, a critical factor is adaptability for modern architectures. Any one of the emerging scripting languages may be appropriate as long as they track and navigate these 10 principles.


Pret-a-Sauver Fashion for Disasters
ICT Results (10/17/08)

European researchers are designing apparel that can aid rescue workers and disaster victims through the utilization of smart fabrics that can monitor the wearer's vital signs, pinpoint their location, and even detect hazardous airborne chemicals. The Proetex project, which focuses on smart clothing research, came from the realization "that technical garments for improving safety were especially needed in the field of emergency work," says project coordinator Annalisa Bonfiglio. Proetex has developed an ensemble outfitted with sensors, including a vest that continuously reads various life signs. There is also a jacket that can detect external threats such as toxic chemicals and high temperatures, and uses accelerometers and GPS to track the wearer's movement, orientation, and location. The system also can determine whether the wearer is standing or lying down. Proetex is in the second of three phases and later versions of the smart garment system could incorporate biosensors that monitor perspiration, dehydration, electrolytes, stress indicators, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Smart clothing promises to reduce rescue workers' physical burden and raise their efficiency by slimming down the equipment they must carry with them.


Researchers Expect Hackers to Prey on Cell Phones
Associated Press (10/15/08) Robertson, Jordan

Georgia Tech security researchers say that hackers will likely target cell phones for use in creating botnet armies. They say that as cell phones get more computing power and better Internet connections, hackers will be able to exploit vulnerabilities in mobile-phone operating systems and Web applications. Millions of PCs have already become part of botnets, and owners generally never know. The Georgia Tech researchers say that if cell phones become absorbed into botnets, new types of scams could be created. For example, infected phones could be programmed to call pay-per-minute 900 numbers, or to buy ringtones from companies established by criminals. The researchers say hackers are particularly drawn to cell phones because they are always on, they are always sending and receiving data, and they generally have poor security. "This is the perfect platform (for hackers)," says Georgia Tech professor Patrick Traynor. "There are some challenges for the adversaries, but we've seen them overcome the challenges in their way before." One challenge for hackers is learning how cellular networks work, which are tightly controlled by cell phone operators.


Study: Use of Ruby Language on the Rise
eWeek (10/14/08) Taft, Darryl K.

The use of the Ruby programming language has grown significantly over the past four years, according to a study based on Black Duck Software's Koders.com search engine data. Ruby is now used more widely than PHP, Python, and Perl, and nearly as much as Visual Basic, C/C++, and C#. Black Duck says Ruby is now the fourth most requested language on Koders.com, behind Java, C/C+, and C#, and the number of Ruby searches has increased more than 20 fold since 2004. "Black Duck's search data confirms the tremendous growth that we are seeing within the community of Ruby developers," says RubyForge.org system administrator Tom Copeland. "It's great to see a leading code search site like Koders.com index RubyForge because it represents another way to make the projects in our community available to tens of thousands of developers worldwide." Ruby, used along with the Ruby on Rails framework, will reach 4 million developers worldwide by 2013, says Gartner's Mark Driver. "Ruby will enjoy a higher concentration among corporate IT developers than typical, dynamic 'scripting' languages, such as PHP," Driver says. Black Duck acquired Koders.com in April and has since enhanced the code search service by adding more than 200 million lines of code to the search engine's repository, increasing its size by 33 percent.


NSF Grants to Help Create Next-Generation Web
University of Texas at Dallas (10/08/08) Moore, David

University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) computer scientists have received a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop next-generation Web technology. Researchers will work to enhance a wide range of semantic Web capabilities, from online scientific research to electronic social networking. "Our research will not only advance the state of the art in semantic Web technologies, but also address security challenges that arise as content searches become more advanced," says UTD professor Bhavani Thuraisingham, the principal investigator of the project. Semantic Web technology is emerging as a crucial enabling technology for knowledge management, information integration, social networking, and a variety of other applications, Thuraisingham says. She notes that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said that machine-understandable Web pages are crucial to making the Web more useful. The UTD researchers also will work on semantic Web research funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, and will work with Raytheon on creating semantic Web technology that can find and analyze visual information. Thuraisingham says they expect to release a number of open source software tools for both semantic Web security and knowledge discovery within the next year.


Robots and Sensors to Help Elderly Stay Independent
Dallas Morning News (10/13/08) Moos, Bob

University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) professor Fillia Makedon says technology will enable people to grow old at home. Supported by the National Science Foundation and others, Makedon has created the Hercleia Human-Centered Computing Laboratory at UTA, where she and other faculty members and students are designing technology that will enable seniors to remain independent longer than previously possible. The research facility, and several similar labs across the country, will help launch what experts predict will be an exploding assistive technology industry within a decade. The UTA lab hosts a one-bedroom apartment equipped with high-tech cameras, motion sensors, and robots to measure any movement within the furnished apartment and relay data to computers that search for abnormalities. Once the technology has been perfected and deployed, caregivers will be able to sign on to a secure Web site and check how a senior is recovering from surgery or responding to a new prescription, for example. The technology will also act as an early warning system for caregivers, Makedon says, alerting them to an unexplained change in someone's gait, for example, which might indicate a higher risk of falling and a need for a walker. Cost will be the biggest barrier to getting such technology out of labs and into homes, says the Center for Aging Services Technologies' Lauren Shaham, as government programs and private insurers generally do not cover such preventative technology.


Users, Enterprises Pay for Poor Privacy Policies, Study Says
Dark Reading (10/07/08) Wilson, Tim

Complicated and convoluted privacy policies are causing users to make bad decisions online, potentially threatening the practice of self regulation and privacy on the Internet, concludes a new research report from Carnegie Mellon University researchers Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor. They say that privacy policies are hard to read, are read infrequently, and do not support rational decision making. The study found that users' time cost associated with reading and understanding privacy policies outweighs the benefit of keeping their data safe, and as a result they generally skip the privacy policy when visiting a new Web site. The researchers determined the cost of reading privacy policies by calculating how long it takes to read them and what that time is worth. The researchers used a list of the 75 most popular Web sites and assumed an average reading rate of 250 words per minute to find an average reading time of 10 minutes per policy. To skim a policy took about six minutes. Overall, the study found that an average time of between 16 to 444 hours a year was needed to read all of the privacy policies, and between six to 215 hours to skim those policies. Based on a rate of $4.50 per hour, the study found that reading privacy policies costs users between $71 to almost $7,000 per year, or approximately $365 billion per year for all Internet users in the United States. The researchers say if Web-based services are to work under the current regulatory model, enterprises need to find ways of making privacy policies easier to understand.


Increased Retail Security With Smart Items
Fraunhofer Institute (10/08) Briele, Marc

Fraunhofer IIS researchers are working on a new technical platform to protect goods during the shipping process through the use of wireless ad-hoc sensor networks to create logistical information systems that allow items to be tracked along the entire distribution chain. By fitting small computers with communications facilities into logistical objects, each item becomes an active part of an IT system. The intelligent logistical objects, or smart items, are an advance over passive RFID systems that only transmit their information when requested. The active approach solves fundamental problems in distribution logistics and means. For example, smart items can increase the transparency of shipping goods by making a comprehensive record of all items in a consignment. Smart items also create an active retail surveillance system, because they notice when something is removed from the consignment and can inform the IT system of the loss, not only preventing losses from within the flow of goods but also registering any manipulation or incorrect handling. Fraunhofer researchers are currently working on developing all of the necessary elements, including ad-hoc network mechanisms, network protocols with power-saving media access tiers, efficient routing algorithms, distributed services and middleware, and application-specific software.


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