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Welcome to the August 3, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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U.S. Government Hankers for Hackers
Reuters (08/02/11) Tabassum Zakaria

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other federal agencies are making overtures to hackers to help the government fight the cyberwars, as there is a pronounced shortfall of hacking skills in the public sector. "Today it's cyberwarriors that we're looking for, not rocket scientists," says the NSA's Richard George. "That's the race that we're in today. And we need the best and brightest to be ready to take on this cyberwarrior status." The NSA wants to hire about 1,500 people in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and an additional 1,500 next year. The NSA needs cybersecurity specialists to fortify networks, defend them with updates, execute penetration testing to find security vulnerabilities, and monitor for any signs of cyberattacks. Federal agencies will be vying with corporations for hacker talent at events such as the annual Defcon convention. Defcon founder Jeff Moss says the government needs people with a hacker frame of mind. "It's not like you go to a hacker university and get blessed with a badge that says you're a hacker," he notes. "It's a self-appointed label--you think like one or you don't." George says the NSA can lure hackers to work for it by appealing to their sense of competitiveness, attracting them with state-of-the-art technology, and giving them the sense of working for the greater good.


Report on 'Operation Shady RAT' Identifies Widespread Cyber-Spying
Washington Post (08/03/11) Ellen Nakashima; Julie Tate

Over a period of several months, 72 corporations and government organizations--49 of them U.S.-based--were hacked by an extensive cyberspying operation, according to a new McAfee report. McAfee researchers analyzed logs generated on a single server to trace the hacks, which targeted the Hong Kong and New York offices of the Associated Press, the networks of the International Olympic Committee, 12 U.S. defense companies, a U.S. Energy Department lab, and the United Nations Secretariat, among others. McAfee says the hackers were seeking information on sensitive U.S. military systems, along with material from satellite communications, electronics, natural gas companies, and even bid data from a Florida real estate firm. James A. Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the intrusions are likely Chinese in origin, noting that the target list's stress on Taiwan and on Olympic organizations in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Games "points to China" as the culprit. McAfee says that hackers had erroneously configured a command-and-control server based in a Western nation to produce logs that identified every Internet protocol address the server had controlled for the past five years.


NMSU Engineering Research May Help Solve Some of the Biggest Computer Problems
Las Cruces Sun-News (NM) (07/31/11) Linda Fresques

Researchers at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and Sandia National Laboratories say they are developing a new computing system that will push the limits of computing power to help scientists solve complex problems faster and more efficiently. The system is focused on solving intricate, graph-based problems using exascale processing that is 1,000 times faster than any current computer. NMSU and Sandia researchers will develop the hardware for the system, while researchers at Indiana University and Louisiana State University will develop the software. The ultimate goal of the project is improved performance and efficiency. "This system will be faster because the processor will be custom designed to execute these specific applications, so performance will be optimized," says NMSU professor Jeanine Cook. The researchers also plan to use field-programmable gate arrays, which will provide customized circuitry for executing graph algorithm operations using publicly available components. "Anyone, anywhere could buy off-the-shelf reprogrammable hardware and download our architecture and software and replicate the system," Cook says.


Digital Photos Can Animate a Face So It Ages and Moves Before Your Eyes
UW News (08/02/11) Hannah Hickey

University of Washington researchers have developed a system that can quickly combine thousands of digital portraits to create an animation of a person's face. The tool can make a face appear to age over time, or make the person's expression gradually change from a smile to a frown. The researchers based their project off of people who have taken a picture of themselves everyday for several years to create an automated, online movie of them aging. The project is similar to an earlier Washington project that combined tourist photos of buildings to recreate an entire scene in three dimensions, which led to Microsoft's Photosynth. The software takes photos that are tagged with the same person. After locating the face and other major features, the program aligns the faces and chooses photos with similar expressions. The tool fades between images, which results in a smooth transition that gives the appearance of motion. One version of the tool, called Face Movie, is a simplified form that runs more smoothly and is already available to the public. "This is one of the first papers to focus on unstructured photo collections, taken under different conditions, of the type that you would find in iPhoto or Facebook," says Washington professor Steve Seitz.


New Tool Keeps Censors in the Dark
Technology Review (08/02/11) Brian Krebs

University of Michigan researchers have developed Telex, a system that makes it harder for censors to block communications by disguising Web traffic aimed at restricted sites as traffic meant for uncensored Web sites. Telex uses the same method of analyzing data packets that censors often use to block Web sites. The system includes stations at several Internet service providers (ISPs), and the Telex client software program, which runs on the computers of people who want to avoid censorship. The system uses steganography to hide the destination of the traffic the user wants to send. The Telex client first makes an outgoing connection with a non-blocked Web site, encrypting the traffic along the way. The identity of the censored site is encoded in a special tag that is embedded in the encrypted request. The Telex stations can detect these tags and redirect the connection to the blocked site. The system resembles deep packet inspection technology, which governments and ISPs use to censor Web sites.


Defibrillator for Stalled Software
MIT News (08/02/11) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Jolt, software that automatically interrupts infinite loops and moves on to the next line of code in a computer program. Developed by MIT professor Martin Rinard and his graduate students, Jolt recognizes infinite loops by monitoring a program's memory usage. Jolt takes snapshots of the computer's memory at each iteration of a loop, and if the snapshots are the same, the program is clearly stuck in an infinite loop, says MIT graduate student Michael Carbin. Jolt marks the beginnings and ends of all of the loops in the source code as it is being compiled. If the application stalls, Jolt forces it to skip ahead to the first instructions following the loop it is stuck in. The researchers also are working on a binary version of Jolt called Bolt that can run on compiled programs. MIT graduate student Michael Kling has developed an algorithm that identifies the highest-level function in operation at a certain time, which helps Bolt orient itself. Rinard notes that even if Bolt cannot determine what function to jump to, it could randomly jump from one to another until it finds one that breaks the infinite loop.


Stanford U. Offers Free Online Course in Artificial Intelligence
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/02/11) Jie Jenny Zou

Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun and Google director of research Peter Norvig are making their artificial intelligence class this fall free to anyone online. The online course will run in tandem with the actual class from October to December, and online students will be expected to watch the lectures, complete the assignments, and take the exams. Although online students will not earn college credit for the class, Thrun and Norvig say they will receive grades and a certificate if they pass it. Since the course was announced in late July, more than 8,000 people have asked to be put on an email list for more details. The researchers want the online students to interact with Stanford's students, and are encouraging that interaction by having the courses run simultaneously. The professors recommend that online students buy the class textbook and dedicate at least 10 hours a week to the course, which is an intermediate-level class, requiring some mathematical and programming knowledge. Norvig says the course might appeal to students at universities that do not offer similar courses, to technology professionals, or to ambitious high-school students.


Data Centers' Power Use Less Than Was Expected
New York Times (07/31/11) John Markoff

Stanford University researchers have found that the global recession and new power-saving technologies has resulted in a reduction in power usage by data centers. The actual number of computer servers has declined over the last three years, and the emergence of technologies such as more efficient computer chips and computer server virtualization has led to the reduced power needs, says Stanford professor Jonathan G. Koomey. "Mostly because of the recession, but also because of a few changes in the way these facilities are designed and operated, data center electricity consumption is clearly much lower than what was expected, and that's really the big story," Koomey says. Industry experts agree with Koomey's analysis, but many think the slower growth might be temporary. The slower growth rate is significant because it comes at a time when data centers are being built at a record pace, mainly due to companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook operating huge data centers for their millions of users. Most data center designers use standard industry equipment, while a few companies, such as Google, build custom servers for their data centers, making them more efficient than mainstream data centers.


Virtual People to Get ID Checks
BBC News (07/28/11)

The number of online avatars continues to grow, and scientists say techniques are needed to identify the people controlling the digital characters. The University of Louisville's Roman Yampolskiy has developed a way to determine whether people controlling avatars are who they claim to be by using the faces and behaviors of avatars. Yampolskiy's team monitored signature gestures, movements, and other distinguishing characteristics. They also generated large datasets consisting of many possible faces in Second Life and Entropia Universe and then studied them to spot key characteristics. Although the limited expressions on avatars' digital faces, compared to real humans, makes identification tricky, the limited options were relatively easy to measure because computer-generated images have straightforward geometries. Real life and cyberspace continue to merge, and impersonation of avatars is expected to become a growing problem. "It's useful for profiling of avatars for marketing purposes by businesses in virtual worlds" Yampolskiy says. "It also has some applications in forensic tracking of avatars across multiple virtual communities."


The Brain's Connectome--From Branch to Branch
Max Planck Gessellschaft (07/28/11)

Max Planck Institute researchers have developed two programs designed to make mapping the brain's neural network faster and more accurate. One program, RESCOP, analyzes the results of several researchers to produce a bigger picture. The researchers enlisted 70 Heidelberg University students to use RESCOP to reconstruct a network of more than 110 neurons from the retina in full detail. The other program, KNOSSOS, traces the connections between the neurons. The researchers stained a section of tissue with heavy metals to make the neurons visible. Then, using a three-dimensional microscope, the program scans the tissue by starting at the cell body and following the dendrites and axons. The KNOSSOS software is about 50 times faster than conventional tools. The combination of the two programs enables non-experts to contribute to research efforts by working remotely, as the algorithms can detect and average out mistakes. "For the first time ever, these new programs could make it possible for us to unravel the complicated neural network of the brain--a task far more complex than decoding the human genome," says Max Planck's Winfried Denk.


Stegobot Steals Passwords From Your Facebook Photos
New Scientist (07/29/11) Jacob Aron

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scientist Amir Houmansadr helped create Stegobot, an experimental botnet that gains control of computers by hijacking Facebook photos and creates a secret communication channel that is very hard to detect. "If one of your friends is a friend of a friend of the botmaster, the information transfers hop by hop within the social network, finally reaching the botmasters," Houmansadr says. Stegobot uses steganography to hide information in picture files without changing their appearance, storing up to 50 KB in one 720 by 720 pixel image, which is enough to transmit passwords and credit card numbers. The botnet inserts information into any photo a user uploads to Facebook, and then waits for a friend to open the profile. If the friend also is infected with the botnet, any photo they upload also will pass on the stolen data. The data eventually makes its way to the account of someone who is friends with the botmaster, allowing them to extract the information of the original user's identity. Criminals could use a Stegobot-like system because it is very hard to detect, but other methods can steal more data, notes University of Birmingham researcher Marco Cova.


Program Could Help Predict Effectiveness of Treatments
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/28/11) Stephen Harris

The IT Future of Medicine project envisions a computer model of every process of the human body, which should enable doctors to prescribe treatment more effectively, as well as accelerate recovery times and save money. The genome information of an individual patient would be fed into the computer model, and the program would be able to make personalized suggestions about what drugs or treatments to use for the patient. "The long-term aim is to be able to simulate from the bottom up the interactions at a molecular level all the way up to the cellular level, the organ level, and the physiological level," says the Manchester Center for Integrative Systems Biology's Daniel Jameson. "This would allow you to test the response of an individual to particular drugs, allow you to predict how lifestyle choices may affect that individual, and show how someone may benefit from behaving in one particular way where someone else wouldn't." Twenty-five academic institutions and industrial partners are expected to work together to build each body part, organ, or system for the computer model.


A Q&A With David Ferrucci
Slate (08/01/11) Farhad Manjoo

IBM's Watson is being used to address business problems, such as finding the sweet spot in a search spectrum that ranges from full-text to classic database, says David Ferrucci, the lead researcher for the supercomputer project, in an interview. With Watson, companies would not have to put in as much energy preparing their data, but they can get more precise value from it. IBM is working with customers to develop applications in health care, finance, tech support, and other areas. In the future, Ferrucci says Watson will be used to focus on high-value queries, similar to health care searches. "There are thousands or millions of relevant pieces of information that can affect your decision," Ferrucci notes. The Holy Grail that IBM is working toward would be interacting with a machine in a fluent dialogue for the first time, according to Ferrucci. He says the intelligent dialogue would enable a computer to help a student with reading comprehension, for example. "Through that dialogue, the computer is getting smarter, [and] it's helping the student engage in critical thinking," Ferrucci says.


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