Welcome to the May 6, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computer Model Gives Vital Clues to Dealing With Flu Pandemics
University of Western Australia (05/01/09) MacDonald, Janine
Researchers from the University of Western Australia (UWA) say their computer simulation of the spread of H5N1 avian influenza could be applied to the current swine flu (H1N1) outbreak. UWA researchers used statistical data about the town of Albany to model the community of 30,000 people in southwest Western Australia down to its schools, employers, and households. The experts believe the model is the most detailed replication of an actual community. Professor George Milne says that non-pharmaceutical measures could help contain an outbreak and limit the overall burden of epidemics. The research touts the quick implementation of social distancing measures such as school closures, home isolation, partial closure of workplaces, and reduced community contact. "The timing of activation of such non-pharmaceutical interventions is critical," Milne says. "For a very transmissible strain, application of all four interventions at the same time as the first case is introduced, and enforcing these draconian measures continuously, can potentially hold the illness rate at 16 percent (compared to 73 percent if they are not used)."
Study: U.S. Losing Ground in Computer-Simulation Technology
Washington Technology (05/04/09) Jackson, William
The United States is losing its lead in computer simulation as the technology becomes ubiquitous, concludes a new report from the World Technology Evaluation Center. The report says that universities are not preparing students with the skills needed to use rapidly evolving computer-simulation resources. The report, "International Assessment of Research and Development in Simulation-Based Engineering and Science," says the world of computer simulation has become flat, giving anyone with access to computing power the ability to perform advanced modeling and simulation. "It is therefore critical that the U.S. exploit new computer architectures, especially those developed here, before those architectures become ubiquitous," says University of Michigan professor Sharon Glotzer, who led a team of university researchers that produced the report. The most advanced platforms for simulations require advanced programming skills that too few U.S. researchers possess, the National Science Foundation said when announcing the study. Meanwhile, affordable computers and national programs outside the United States are degrading U.S. competitiveness. The report recommended three strategies for maintaining the U.S.'s lead in simulation-based science and engineering. First, create industry-driven partnerships with universities and U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories. Second, support long-term development of simulation-based engineering and science as a discipline and as a tool in other disciplines. Third, improve the education of the next generation of researchers in high-performance computing.
Cyber-Command May Help Protect Civilian Networks
Washington Post (05/06/09) P. A4; Nakashima, Ellen
The U.S. Pentagon is considering establishing a new cybercommand to oversee government efforts to protect military computer networks and to assist in protecting civilian government networks, says National Security Agency (NSA) director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander. The new command would focus on better protecting U.S. military computers by combining the offensive and defensive capabilities of the military and the NSA. The NSA also wants to provide technical support to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is responsible for protecting civilian networks from cyberattacks. Alexander says it makes sense for DHS and the Defense Department to use the same security technology. Former top DHS cybersecurity official Amit Yoran says the NSA has significant depth and expertise, but cautions that the effort must be transparent. "DHS needs to be very, very cautious about its participation in a program like that because you could fundamentally erode the trust DHS needs in order to be successful in its broader security mission," Yoran says. Any effort involving the NSA that goes beyond protecting military networks requires careful legal analysis, according to Yoran. Alexander says a variety of questions need to be answered before attempting a partnership with DHS, including what is the framework for sharing classified threat signatures, how to operate at network speed in a defendable manner, and what is the legal and operational framework.
Researchers Call for National Strategy to Adapt Social Networks to Public Good
Chronicle of Higher Education (05/04/09) Young, Jeffrey R.
More than a dozen researchers met recently at the University of Maryland to draft a white paper that calls for the creation of a National Initiative for Social Participation. The researchers say that social networks could be used to track disease outbreaks, revolutionize neighborhood-watch programs, encourage energy conservation, and other civic- and community-oriented objectives. The effort is led by University of Maryland professor Ben Shneiderman, who plans to propose his project at several conference sessions this summer. Shneiderman is using social media to organize the effort through a Facebook group called iParticipate. "I see this as an agency like NASA is for space, or like the NIH is for health," he says. Part of his objective is to encourage computer science teachers to incorporate social networking technologies into their curricula. However, critics warn that social networks are easily manipulated and prone to errors and vandalism, which could have a negative impact on a social health information network or crime monitoring effort. Shneiderman argues that the challenges of creating useful and reliable social networks is why more research is needed. "Coping with legitimate dangers such as privacy violations, misguided rumors, malicious vandalism, and infrastructure destruction or overload all demand careful planning and testing of potential software," Shneiderman wrote in a letter to Science.
46th DAC Announces Technical Program
Business Wire (05/05/09)
The technical program for ACM's 46th Design Automation Conference (DAC) will offer 54 research paper sessions, featuring 156 talks selected from 733 submissions from around the globe. "The overwhelming number of submissions from around the world and the enthusiasm of our 20-member industry user committee have been very encouraging," says Andrew B. Kahng, DAC's general chair. Wild and Crazy Ideas will be among the research paper sessions, which will include special session topics on how to prepare for design at 22 nm, designing circuits in the face of uncertainty, verification of large systems on chip (SOC), bug-tracking in complex designs, and multicore computing. The research paper sessions are arranged in six parallel tracks, and a User Track featuring more than 80 papers and posters on the latest in tool use and methodologies will serve as a seventh. Senior managers from leading-edge SOC design companies will discuss the costs of scaling, career paths in electronic design automation (EDA), and management of IP, silicon, test, and software supply chains during SOC development as part of the Management Day track. The industry's hottest issues, including the meaning of "green" for EDA, will be a focus of the eight technical panels, and the six full-day tutorials will cover topics such as post-silicon validation. The Exhibition and Suite area will also feature 19 Pavilion panels on the exhibit floor. DAC is scheduled for July 26-31, 2009, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
A Software Application for Mobile Phones to Help Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrims
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (05/04/09)
Researchers from the Ontology Engineering Group at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing and the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela's Intelligent Systems Group have developed software that provides geomatic services for Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrims. The program enables them to share information with other users at anytime through social networking on their mobile phones. The application will be tested during the summer by 100 pilgrims, and will be available for free in 2010. It provides dynamic and context-dependent mobile interactions with resources and services supported by the Instituto Geografico Nacional (IGN). Based on the GeoBuddies platform, the software features algorithms for various functions, including integrating ontology-based information, social annotation of resources and services, collaborative filtering for community-based recommendation, dynamic composition and execution of services, and data transfer and reliability in mobile environments. The program also integrates Web 2.0 and Semantic Web features with grid technologies to provide universal access to resources and services. Pilgrims can enter, share, and search for information, and receive recommendations on items of interest submitted by other users. Users also can search for information on the most attractive sites and routes, which are represented graphically using maps and images from the IGN's Spatial Data Infrastructure and Google Maps.
Unmasking Social-Network Users
Technology Review (05/06/09) Naone, Erica
University of Texas at Austin researchers have found that, combined with readily available data from other online sources, social network data can reveal sensitive information about users. Using the photo-sharing site Flickr and the microblogging service Twitter, the researchers were able to identify a third of the users with accounts on both sites by searching for recognizable patterns in anonymized network data. Both Twitter and Flickr display user information publicly, so the researchers anonymized much of the data to test their algorithms. The objective was to determine if it was possible to extract sensitive information on individuals using the connections between users, even if almost all of the personally identifying information had been removed. The researchers found that extracting information was possible provided they could compare patterns with those from another social-network graph in which some user information was accessible. Texas professor Vitaly Shmatikov notes that social network data, particularly the patterns of friendships between users, can be valuable to advertisers. However, he says releasing that information also makes the networks vulnerable. The researchers found that non-anonymous social network data is easy to find. "Every person does a few quirky, individual things which end up being strongly identifying," Shmatikov says. Carnegie Mellon University professor Alessandro Acquisti says the research points to the difficulty in maintaining privacy online. "There is no such thing as complete anonymity," Acquisti says. "It's impossible."
When Really Big Numbers Aren't Nearly Enough
Wall Street Journal (05/06/09) P. A11; Bialik, Carl
Unallocated Internet Protocol (IP) addresses are expected to be depleted by some time in 2012, according to IPv6 Forum fellow Tony Hain. He and others advocate a switch to the IPv6 addressing protocol, which will dramatically expand the population of available computers in the network. This transition will probably be untidy but not disastrous, and Hain speculates that in the worst-case scenario, "organizations that have money will have addresses, while organizations that don't have money will fall off the 'Net." "It was an experiment with an uncertain outcome," says Google chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf of the original IP addressing scheme, which contained 32 bits. Cerf says that others at the time argued for a 128-bit scheme. "I couldn't imagine arguing that we needed 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses to carry out an experiment," he says. However, now Cerf says moving to IPv6 is vital. "The 'Net won't come to an end, but it will become more fragmented if we don't have widespread implementation of IPv6," he warns. Todd Underwood with the North American Network Operators Group supports an after-market for current IP addresses so that once they are exhausted those people or businesses who need them can purchase unused addresses from others. He envisions IPv6 adoption being fueled by the rise in Internet access price such a move may trigger.
From Evolution to Algorithms
ETH Life (04/30/09) Ulmer, Simone
ETH Zurich Institute for Environmental Engineering researchers Tobias Siegfried and Wolfgang Kinzelback are using evolutionary algorithms to simulate natural evolution in an effort to solve resource management problems. The researchers are adapting methods developed by Eckart Zitzler, a specialist in solving difficult problems through evolutionary algorithms, which use mutation, recombination, and selection as the foundation for developing solutions to complex problems. The algorithms are based on a random search process that is focused on constantly improving solutions. Evolutionary algorithms find solutions by explicitly making use of random decisions. The researchers never know when they have found the maximum improvement, which is fine as they are more concerned with how well the initial solution can be improved, Zitzler says. Zitzler's group also has been working on automotive electronics, optimizing the computer systems that control braking, air conditioning, and air bags, for example.
Seattle Scientists Play Big Role in Hunt for Flu Clues
Seattle Times (05/03/09) Song, Kyung M.
The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is part of a nationwide network that includes six universities which has been building computer models to predict how infectious diseases may spread. Fred Hutchinson biostatistician Ira Longini is working with computer scientists and researchers at Harvard University, Virginia Tech, and four other schools on the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS). The center's current focus is the A H1N1 swine flu influenza. An analysis by the center will give public health officials guidance on how to combat the new pathogen. More than a week after H1N1 was identified as a global health problem, essential data on the characteristics of the virus were still missing, including information on H1N1's contagiousness, which is measured by the average number of new infections produced by a single infected person, assuming no one is immune to the virus. Longini specializes in simulating how an infectious agent would spread in real life, and as more information becomes available on H1N1, he is entering that information into his computer to determine how the disease's spread is being affected by school closings, quarantines, treatments, anti-viral drugs, and other actions by public health authorities. Longini says MIDAS investigators are close to obtaining some firm insights on H1N1 and other diseases, including evidence that if an avian flu pandemic were to arise, quick action could contain the outbreak.
If the Face Fits…
Inderscience Publishers (04/30/09)
Twelve law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom are using a forensic facial composite software tool that does not require witnesses to provide detailed descriptions of suspects they can barely remember. Instead, the EFIT-V software has the witness answer questions about the age, sex, face shape, and hairstyle of the suspect to initialize the system and then produce a set of computer-generated faces. The operator of the system shows the witness the lineup and has the individual select the face that represents the best likeness of the suspect, and then variants of the face are produced and the witness chooses again from the new set of images. "Unlike traditional feature-based methods, the approach described here utilizes global, whole face, facial characteristics and allows a witness to produce plausible, photo-realistic face images in an intuitive way," according to Stuart Gibson of the University of Kent, Canterbury and colleagues. The EFIT-V system evolves the face into the likeness of the suspect. In trials, the system doubled the useful intelligence of conventional methods. The research appeared in the International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics.
How Hackers Can Steal Secrets From Reflections
Scientific American (04/27/09) Gibbs, W. Wayt
Even the best electronic security may not be enough to protect sensitive data from dogged hackers, and researchers have been able to extract information from the flashes of light-emitting diodes on network switches or the reflection of screen images off an eyeball. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology graduate students Martin Vuagnoux and Sylvain Pasini observe that commonplace radio surveillance equipment can pick up keystrokes as they are typed on a keyboard in a different room, and they are preparing a conference paper detailing four unique ways that keystrokes can be inferred from radio signals captured through walls at distances up to 20 meters. These side-channel exploits are untraceable and very difficult to defend against, yet computer security researchers have devoted little attention to the problem. Although many of these attacks require specialized knowledge and equipment, Max Planck Institute for Software Systems fellow Michael Backes contends that reflection-based attacks can be carried out by anyone with a $500 telescope and a digital camera. Eyes and other curved surfaces are particularly useful in reading reflections as they reveal wide swathes of their surroundings. Privacy filters applied to laptop screens to prevent over-the-shoulder eavesdropping can aid reflection exploits, as the filters raise the brightness of the reflection on the viewer's eyes. It is doubtful that side-channel attacks will become as ubiquitous as spam, malware, and other network hacking tools. As University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory scientist Markus G. Kuhn notes that "you have to be close to the target, and you must be observing while a user is actively accessing the information." These methods will probably be employed to infiltrate specially selected targets such as the computer systems of financiers and high-level corporate and government officials.
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