Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 29, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Princeton Report Rips N.J. E-Voting Machines as Easily Hackable
Computerworld (10/27/08) Weiss, Todd R.

Electronic-voting machines used in New Jersey and elsewhere are unreliable and potentially prone to hacking, concludes a new report from Princeton University and other groups. The 158-page report was ordered by a New Jersey judge as part of an ongoing dispute over the machines. The e-voting machines can be "easily hacked" in about seven minutes by anyone with basic computer knowledge, according to the report. The vulnerability could enable fraudulent firmware to steal votes from one candidate and give them to another. The machines can be hacked by installing fraudulent software contained in a replacement chip that can be installed on the main circuit board, which would be very difficult to detect, the report says. The major problem is that there are numerous opportunities in the storage, distribution, and deployment of the machines where an unauthorized person could access and manipulate them without being detected. Princeton University Andrew Appel, one of the authors of the report, says that such vulnerabilities cast doubts about the accuracy and reliability of the machines. A group of public interest organizations are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey, arguing that the machines should be discarded because they cannot meet state election law requirements for security and accuracy. State officials who support the machines say they are adequate for the job.


ACM Experts Say Heavy Voter Turnout Will Test New Voter Registration Systems
AScribe Newswire (10/28/08)

The 2008 U.S. election will test many newly installed or redesigned voter registration databases (VRDs), warn ACM computing experts. The 2002 Federal Help America Vote Act required states to establish the databases, but they have become a source of confusion in early voting currently underway in several states. Experts from ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) will monitor and analyze the reliability of registration records and voting equipment around the U.S. as the election approaches. Federal law requires states to verify new voter registrations against drivers' license numbers, or the last four digits of Social Security numbers, but the databases containing this information are often flawed. Former ACM president Barbara Simons says VRDs need to control data-entry errors and large-scale data merges and purges, as well as security concerns to prevent voter disenfranchisement, personal information leaks, and voter fraud. ACM's report on VRDs includes 99 high-level recommendations to help states establish best practices for computerized statewide electronic databases. Simons says long delays and contested voter eligibility have been caused by problems with VRD systems. USACM chair Eugene Spafford says that electronic VRDs might make registration and voting procedures more efficient, but he is concerned that mismanaged updates could erase thousands of people from voting rolls. Spafford says automated checks should be done well in advance of an election so voters can contest "no match" results.


Testing for Tech Literacy
BusinessWeek (10/28/08) MacMillan, Douglas

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) has announced plans to develop the first nationwide assessment of technological learning in U.S. schools in an effort to reverse the slide in test scores for science, math, and engineering. NAGB, a government-commissioned independent council, has awarded WestEd a $1.86 million contract to work with educators, school officials, the business community, and the public on constructing a test, which could reach schools in 2012. "If you look at the business community and post-secondary work, those sectors really need students who have science, technology, and engineering backgrounds to fill jobs in these new and dynamic fields," says NAGB executive director Mary Crovo. The National Science Foundation reports that the number of full-time graduate enrollments in computer science and engineering courses decreased 11 percent in 2004 since peaking in 2002. The number of foreigners with bachelor's degrees holding jobs in U.S. science and engineering almost doubled from 1990 to 2005. Supporters hope the test will establish a foundation for renewed and deeper emphasis on science and engineering at the earliest levels. WestEd will establish a panel of advisers that includes instructors and representatives from tech companies such as Intel and Google. "Our world is changing, the way we do business is changing, our reliance on each other is changing," says Intel's Paige Kuni, a panel member. "Kids have to be able to master those types of skills to be ready for a U.S. economy when they come out of the school system."


Big Tech Companies Back Global Plan to Shield Online Speech
New York Times (10/28/08) P. B8; Helft, Miguel; Markoff, John

A global code of conduct designed to better protect online free speech and privacy against government intrusion will be introduced by leading technology companies and public-interest organizations. The code of conduct is the launching point for the Global Network Initiative, a new effort that commits participants to minimizing or avoiding the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression. The initiative states that privacy is "a human right and guarantor of human dignity" and commits the companies involved to trying to resist overly broad demands for restrictions on freedom of speech and other actions that could compromise the privacy of their users. The initiative started after human rights groups and Congress criticized Internet companies for cooperating with the Chinese government's censorship efforts and demands for information on dissidents. In addition to establishing a code of conduct, the initiative will provide a non-governmental forum for the companies and human rights groups to jointly resist demands for censorship. The initiative also will establish a system of independent auditors to rate the companies' conduct. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are backing the effort, and France Telecom and Vodafone say they may participate. However, AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Sprint Nextel have not joined so far. The initiative is supported by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Business for Social Responsibility, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, which helped lead the two-year effort to create the initiative.


Grad Student's Research to Aid Those With Speech Impairments Takes Top ACM Prize
University of Delaware (10/28/08) Kukich, Diane

ACM named University of Delaware graduate student Keith Trnka the winner of the Student Research Competition at Assets 2008. Trnka's research focused on improving augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems via word prediction and the use of a new method that eliminates the need to split a collection of texts, or corpus, into topics. Communication with AAC devices can be problematic because the user might have reduced motor control, and a system that works fine for email might not perform as well for casual conversation or school assignments. "What sets Keith's work apart is that he has developed novel ways to zero in on those aspects of the corpus that are most like what the person has typed so far," says Delaware professor Kathleen McCoy. "This has enabled his algorithms to work better than what has been done before." Trnka says he wants to continue pursuing research in natural language programming in either an academic or industrial setting. The 10th ACM Conference on Computers and Accessibility was held in Nova Scotia from Oct. 13-15.


Good Code, Bad Computations: A Computer Security Gray Area
UCSD News (10/27/08) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) graduate students Erik Buchanan and Ryan Roemer, building on previous research by UCSD professor Hovav Shacham, have demonstrated that the technique of building malicious programs from good code using return-oriented programming can be automated. They also demonstrated that this vulnerability applies to RISC computer architectures as well as the x86 architecture. Shacham has already described how return-oriented programming could be used to force computers with the x86 architecture to act maliciously without infecting the machines with new code. However, the attack required extensive manual construction and appeared to rely on a unique quirk in the x86 design. Buchanan and Roemer will present their work at ACM's Conference on Communications and Computer Security (CCS), which takes place Oct. 27-31 in Alexandria, Virginia. "Most computer security defenses are based on the notion that preventing the introduction of malicious code is sufficient to protect a computer," says UCSD professor Stefan Savage. "There is a subtle fallacy in the logic, however: simply keeping out bad code is not sufficient to keep out bad computation." Return-oriented programming starts with the attacker taking advantage of a programming error in the target system to overwrite the runtime stack and divert program execution away from the path intended by the system's designers. However, instead of injecting malicious code, this technique enables attackers to create any kind of malicious computation or program using existing code.


New 3-D Image Systems to Provide Reliable Face Biometrics
University of Hertfordshire (10/28/08)

People who wear makeup or wigs will not be able to dupe a new three-dimensional (3D) face-imaging system developed by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire. "Our new 3D vision system goes beyond the skin and is equivalent to measuring the bone structure," says Hertfordshire professor Sooda Ramalingam. Ramalingam developed new mathematical algorithms for the face-imaging system. Specific segments and features of a person's face can be photographed and then compared with the overall photo. "This is much faster than any 3D system and processes 24 frames per second in real time," Ramalingam says. The face-imaging system can be used in high security zones, and has other commercial applications.


A Better Network for Outer Space
Technology Review (10/27/08) Sauser, Brittany

Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf is working with a team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the MITRE Corporation to design and implement protocols for an Internet-like network for space communication. The Interplanetary Internet will be tested aboard the International Space Station in 2009, and Cerf hopes that new space missions will use the new protocols by 2010. Ultimately, the Interplanetary Internet could interconnect manned and robotic spacecraft, creating the foundation of a communications system that stretches across the solar system. Cerf says a major problem with creating such a network is distance. When Earth and Mars are closest, it still takes 3.5 minutes for a radio signal moving at the speed of light to travel from Earth to Mars, and it can take up to 40 minutes when the planets are at their farthest apart. The other problem is that the planets and their satellites are always in motion, and most are rotating, which disrupts communications links. The researchers' new delay- and disruption-tolerant networking (DTN) system holds on to communications until a link can be established. DTN also allows for more complex mission configurations involving many devices on the surface of planets and in orbit. For example, on Mars there are four orbiters and three landed and operations spacecraft. Cerf expects to use the standard TCP/IP protocols on the surface and inside spacecraft, but the DTN protocols will be used for interplanetary distance communications.


Personalised Learning Puts Students in a Class of Their Own
ICT Results (10/27/08)

The European Union-funded iClass project has developed a learning platform that provides students with extra control over what they learn through a more individualized learning experience. The iClass project's learning platform is based on the concept of self-regulated personalized learning, which is designed to empower students to take more control over their education. The project united 17 partners from the European Union, Turkey, and Israel to develop an intelligent cognitive-based open learning system and environment. "We aim to make education more effective, worthwhile and, above all, enjoyable," says iClass project coordinator Eric Meyvis. "Pupils are becoming increasingly unmotivated. We are using ICTs, the Internet, and an attractive interface to make learning more fun." Initially, the iClass project's goal was creating an electronic substitute for the teacher, but project participants refocused the effort to find a balance between technology and traditional teaching. "We were convinced that the platform could replace teachers, but we soon discovered that this was too technology-oriented," Meyvis says. "We refocused the project to strike more of a balance between technology and pedagogy." The platform has since evolved to aid the teacher in empowering students through a more open approach to education.


Microsoft Introduces Windows 7, Ending Vista Brand
New York Times (10/29/08) P. B5; Markoff, John

Microsoft has introduced a pre-beta version of Windows 7, the seventh version of the Windows operating system and a replacement for the disappointing Vista brand. Microsoft also announced that it is planning to introduce a Web-based version of its Office programs. In an effort to move past Vista, Microsoft demonstrated Windows 7 to a group of more than 6,000 programmers attending Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference. "We've done a lot of work around how you manage the windows, how you launch programs, and how you manage the windows of the programs that you've launched," says Microsoft technologist Steven Sinofsky, who led the new version's development. "It's all about personalization and putting you in control of the PC, and that's a big initiative that we've had." Sinofsky says Microsoft paid close attention to feedback on Windows Vista, and demonstrated a pre-beta version of Windows, acknowledging that some features were still missing. The presentation focused on the more polished control of Windows 7, including how on-screen notifications are handled, which was a major irritant for early Vista users. Other new features include an enhanced and more flexible taskbar, more powerful search features, and an easier-to-use home network and file sharing. Sinofsky also hinted that Microsoft plans to revise Windows 7 to support new multicore microprocessors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.


The Computer, Once a Tool for Scientists, Is Becoming a Collaborator
Computerworld (10/27/08) Anthes, Gary

Cornell University computer scientist Ken Birman argues that computers have made the jump from tools serving science to components of the science. Fellow Cornell professor Jon Kleinberg agrees, and says that it "is becoming increasingly clear ... that computer science is not just a discipline that provides computational tools to scientists. It actually becomes part of the way in which scientists build theories and think about their own problems." Microsoft's Tony Hey talks about e-science, which is a set of technologies for supporting scientific initiatives characterized by a massive volume of often distributed data, the networking of that data and multiple collaborators, and the intersection of multiple fields, including computer science. These projects are marked by a great deal of complexity, and the tools, algorithms, and theories of computer science can help sort the projects out, Hey says. He cites the emergence of a fourth paradigm in science, or data-centric science, which at its most fundamental level involves aggregating data and mining it for insights that would never be determined by manual inspection or from analysis of any one data source. Microsoft Research researcher Roger Barga says e-science is being propelled by two technological developments, the first of which is the overtaking of conventional data analysis by our data-capturing ability. The second development is the advent of new pattern recognition and machine learning tools and other new techniques for organizing, accessing, and mining huge volumes of data.


Computer Circuit Built From Brain Cells
New Scientist (10/23/08) Barras, Colin

Researchers at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science have developed a way to control the growth pattern of human neurons to build reliable computer circuits that use neurons instead of wires. The researchers start with a glass plate coated with cell-repellent material. The desired circuit pattern is scratched into this coating and then coated with a cell-friendly adhesive. The cell repellent forces the cells to grow in the scratched areas, which are thin enough to force the neurons to grow in a single direction, forming straight, wire-like connections around the circuit. Using this method, the researchers built a device that acts like an AND logic gate, which produces an output only when it receives two inputs. Weizmann researcher Assaf Rotem believes that this research provides a useful model for real brain function, and says that brain-cell logic circuits could serve as intermediaries between computers and the nervous system. Brain implants already give paralyzed people the ability to control robotic arms or the ability to talk, but these implants suffer a drop-off in performance when scar tissue covers the electrodes. "An intermediate layer of in vitro neurons interfacing between man and machine could be advantageous," Rotem says.


Catching Quakes With Laptops
International Science Grid This Week (10/22/08) Grey, Francois

The Quake Catcher Network (QCN) project is taking advantage of the small accelerometer chip inside laptop computers to detect tremors in the earth. QCN, led by University of California, Riverside's Elizabeth Cochran and Stanford University's Jesse Lawrence, has already recruited approximately 1,500 laptops, which are connected in a network that has detected several tremors, including a magnitude 5.4 quake in Los Angeles in July. QCN uses the same BOINC platform for volunteer computing as project such as SETI@home. The price-efficient laptop network enables researchers to know where strong events are felt immediately, instead of having to guess where the strong motions are occurring by interpolating between sensors. Another advantage of QCN is that the sensors can record the maximum ground movement. Many high-sensitivity sensors do not record the full extent of the oscillations they measure during even moderate earthquakes. Lawrence says that with enough sensors, researchers should be able to triangulate earthquakes for early warning. One roadblock for QCN is getting accurate coordinates for each laptop. Most laptops do not have global positioning systems, so the project relies on coordinates that are submitted by the user. Rough coordinates also can be automatically retrieved from the network routers the laptops are connected to.


McGill Physicists Find a New State of Matter in a "Transistor"
McGill University (10/21/08) Shainblum, Mark

McGill University researchers have discovered a new state of matter, a quasi-three-dimensional (3D) electron crystal, similar to materials used in the fabrication of modern transistors. The researchers say the discovery could have a major impact on the development of new electronic devices. As chips become increasingly smaller, scientists expect that the bizarre laws and behaviors of quantum physics will hinder the production of even smaller chips. The discovery of a new state of matter could help the industry as traditional manufacturing techniques approach quantum limits. Working with an extremely pure form of semiconductor material, the researchers discovered the quasi-3D electron crystal in a device cooled at ultra-low temperatures. The material was then exposed to the most powerful continuous magnetic fields generated on earth. "In a 2D electron crystal, the electrons are squeezed between two materials and they're very two dimensional," says McGill's Guillaume Gervais. "They can move on a plane, like billiard balls on a pool table, but there's no up and down motion. There's a thickness, but they're stuck." Gervais says the researchers decided to tweak the two-dimensionality by applying a very large magnetic field, using the largest magnet in the world at the Magnet Lab in Florida, which caused a two-dimensional electron system inside the semiconducting material to transform into a quasi-3D system.


How Will We Interact With the Web of Data?
Internet Computing (10/08) Vol. 12, No. 5, P. 88; Heath, Tom

An evolution of the Web from an information space of linked documents to a Semantic Web of linked, machine-readable data is taking place, and the migration to publishing data for machine consumption creates numerous opportunities and challenges for human-computer interaction, according to Talis Information researcher Tom Heath. "If we're to fully exploit the challenges and opportunities of a Web of data, we need to move beyond the initial [technical infrastructure development] phase and work to understand how this changes the Web's user interaction paradigm," he writes. Heath says it is a mistake to assume that users of the Semantic Web will have any control over the presentation of the data they publish, which represents an opportunity for publishers to liberate themselves from visual design concerns and focus primarily on the publication of relevant, high-quality data. He suggests that homepages be discarded, while browsers for the Web of data "must treat 'things,' in the broadest sense, as first-class citizens of the interface." Semantic Web browsers could potentially facilitate a far greater level of direct manipulation in their interfaces and substantially lower the degree of indirection, Heath says. Interaction widgets in interfaces that people are already familiar with will have to change as well, with Heath reasoning that the back button in a Semantic Web browser should transfer the user to previously viewed things. Managing the assembly of data sources into a coherent whole is a major challenge, Heath notes.


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