Welcome to the February 24, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
White House, Consumers in Mind, Offers Online Privacy Guidelines
New York Times (02/23/12) Edward Wyatt
The Obama administration has outlined a set of voluntary online privacy principles designed to help consumers control the use of their personal data mined from Internet searchers and move electronic commerce closer to a one-click, one-touch process that enables users to opt out of online tracking. "By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates, and policy makers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth," says President Barack Obama. Companies that are responsible for almost 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements have agreed to comply when consumers choose to control online tracking, according to a consortium of browser developers that includes Google, Microsoft, and Apple. The Digital Advertising Alliance, a group of marketing and advertising trade groups, has committed to following the instructions that consumers provide about their privacy preferences by using Do Not Track technology already available in most Web browsers. The next step will be for the U.S. Commerce Department to work with Internet companies and consumer advocates to develop enforceable codes of conduct aligned with a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which was released as part of the administration’s plan, and set standards for the use of personal data.
BBC Tech Chief Says New ICT Curriculum Will Boost Supply of High-Quality Graduate Developers
Computing (02/23/12) Sooraj Shah
Business will benefit from Britain's move to overhaul the information and communication technology (ICT) curriculum because organizations will be able to recruit graduates with more highly developed technical skills, says the BBC Center of Technology's Andy Wilson. The government announced in January that computer science and programming will be the focus of a new ICT curriculum. Wilson says students will learn technical skills at a younger age. "In the extra two to four years of academia they will be able to develop their skills a lot further and it means we could recruit a far higher-skilled graduate developer than we are recruiting right now," he notes. Although Wilson says it is necessary to replace the current ICT curriculum, he notes that more needs to be done to make IT a more attractive career option for young people. "When the industry and educational institutes try to show how attractive the industry is for younger people to work in, do we say maintaining servers is very interesting or do we show BBC workers at the Glastonbury festival plugging in audio and visual feeds and getting this out to people at home?" Wilson asks.
Tech Giants Agree to Deal on Privacy Policies for Apps
Wall Street Journal (02/23/12) Geoffrey A. Fowler
California attorney general Kamala D. Harris reached an agreement with major mobile-device companies, including Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and Research In Motion, which could change how application makers handle personal data. The companies agreed that California law requires apps to have privacy policies, and that they would begin asking app developers who collect personal information to include them. "We have populations without knowledge of [mobile technology's] potential uses who are potentially vulnerable," Harris says. She notes that many of the most downloaded apps lack privacy policies. The state will be responsible for enforcing the law, but the companies agreed to help educate developers about their legal obligations. Harris says the companies are participating voluntarily and in good faith. Requiring privacy policies would force app developers to consider the information they require from consumers and why. A study of 101 popular apps found that 56 of them transmitted the phone's unique device ID to other companies without users' knowledge or consent.
European Court of Justice to Rule on Legality of ACTA
V3.co.uk (02/22/12) Dan Worth
The European Commission (EC) will ask the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to rule on the legality of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). "We are planning to ask Europe's highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible with the [European Union's] fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and information or data protection and the right to property in case of intellectual property," says EC commissioner Karel De Gucth. Several European nations have backed out of the ACTA agreement after initially agreeing to it, admitting that they had not fully understood the implications of the proposed legislation. "The EC has a responsibility to provide our parliamentary representatives and the public at large with the most detailed and accurate information available," De Gucth says. Justice commissioner Vivine Reding also supports referring ACTA to ECJ. "Copyright protection can never be a justification for eliminating freedom of expression or freedom of information," she says. However, De Gucth defends much of ACTA, saying that it will not introduce any new rules, but simply help to enforce what is already law. The Open Rights Group's Peter Bradwell says the EC is using the referral to add legitimacy to ACTA.
Mathematician Sees Artistic Side to Father of Computer
UChicago News (02/23/12) Steve Koppes
In a book to be published later this year, University of Chicago mathematician Robert Soare proposes that Alan Turing's design for the modern computer was an artistic as well as a scientific achievement. Soare says Turing's landmark 1936 paper on computability theory contains beauty as well as scientific breakthroughs, comparing the concepts to Michelangelo's Statue of David. "Michelangelo and Turing both completely transcended conventional approaches, [creating] something completely new from their own visions, something which went far beyond the achievements of their contemporaries," he writes. Soare is leading a charge to revive Turing's view of computing. "He has single-handedly produced what we now see as a 'Turing Renaissance,' which makes his work on computability and art specially interesting and appropriate," says Barry Cooper, who is editing the book "Alan Turing--His Work and Impact." In the book, Soare argues that mathematicians are like artists in that they choose which problems to work on according to taste and beauty. He also discusses Turing's invention of the universal machine. "The universal machine simulated any other Turing machine because it took as inputs the program for that machine and an arbitrary input, and processed that input just as the given program would have done," Soare notes.
Brain Power Sought to Drive Supercomputing
The Australian (Australia) (02/22/12) Andrew Trounson
Australia needs to increase its pool of skilled researchers to take advantage of the government's tens of millions of dollars of funding for supercomputing infrastructure, according to people overseeing the expansion. A national computational science institute would bring together mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists to work with researchers from other disciplines on joint projects, says the Australian National University's Lindsay Botten. She says the institute also could serve as a doctoral training center for students, who would have two supervisors and would combine their computational expertise with other discipline areas. "It is about getting the brain power to capitalize on the infrastructure that is being put in place and deliver the research outcomes that have substantial benefits in national priority areas," Botten says. A skills shortage would prevent Australia from using supercomputers to pursue ambitious research projects, says Melbourne University's Peter Taylor. "We need a solid strategy on how we propose to support the general electronics side of research, academia, and industry over the next 10 years, otherwise we are going to get our lunch eaten because other countries are certainly going to be doing this."
Research on Applying Enhanced Virtuality to Language Learning
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (02/20/12)
Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed OpenWonderland, a prototype platform that merges the real world with a copy in the virtual world so that students can be immersed in a hybrid learning environment that facilitates language learning. The researchers developed OpenWonderland using an open code platform to create distributed three-dimensional virtual worlds. The purpose is to utilize the immersion characteristics that virtual worlds offer along with the interaction of reality, the virtual world, and the hybrid world to create e-learning activities. "We created a mirror of the real world, in this case of the Gran Via in the capital, and we superimposed digital information on the reality that the users observed through a camera and a mobile phone screen; this way we were able to create a world of enhanced reality," says UC3M professor Maria Blanca Ibanez. Students who are in the system can see the movements of the avatar who represents the teacher, who may really be in the street, and who can, in turn, interact with the students with a mobile phone. The researchers say the technology will motivate students to participate in the learning process due to the interactive nature of the activities and because they are able to experience a variety of situations.
Preparing for the Flood: Visualizations Help Communities Plan for Sea-Level Rise
University of British Columbia (02/19/12) Heather Amos
University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have created computer visualizations of rising sea levels in a low-lying coastal municipality, illustrating how communities could adapt to climate change scenarios such as flooding and storm surges. "To me, the visualizations are the only way that you can tell the complete story of climate change and its impacts in a low-lying coastal community," says UBC's David Flanders. The visualizations were constructed using a three-dimensional geovisualization process that integrates climate-modeling scenarios, inundation modeling, geographic information systems data, land use, and urban design. Flanders is working with researchers at UBC's Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning to calculate what water will do during a storm, as well as how strategies could work on the ground and in the public. The visualizations show how the region could appear at the end of the century and provide estimates of the cost of each solution for the municipality, the cost to individual property owners, and the tradeoffs between protecting roads, habitats, homes, waterfront views, and agricultural production. "Other communities around the globe could gain insight from this on how to address their own local concerns, whether it’s sea level rise, forest fire risk, changing snow pack, or other issues," Flanders says.
The U.N. Threat to Internet Freedom
Wall Street Journal (02/21/12) Robert M. McDowell
Dozens of countries are pushing aggressively for the establishment of international control over the Internet via the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which U.S. Federal Communications Commission commissioner Robert M. McDowell warns will turn the Internet's prosperous multi-stakeholder regime upside down and threaten its freedom and openness. Among backers' proposals for this regime change is the subjection of cybersecurity and data privacy to international authority, permission for phone companies to charge fees for international Internet traffic, ITU dominance over key functions of multi-stakeholder Internet governance bodies, and the placement of engineering and technical standards-setting entities under intergovernmental control. "A balkanized Internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty," McDowell argues. "It would impair Internet growth most severely in the developing world but also globally as technologists are forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest." McDowell says the speed of Internet decision-making is something that no single government, much less an intergovernmental body, can match when it comes to economic and engineering matters. He suggests as an alternative strategy the encouragement of a dialogue among all interested parties to expand the multi-stakeholder model so that agreement to address reasonable concerns can be reached.
Computers May Control Intersections for Self-driving Cars
IDG News Service (02/19/12) Joab Jackson
University of Texas at Austin researchers have developed a smart traffic intersection that can manage the flow of autonomous vehicles. Texas professor Peter Stone says intersections of the future will manage vehicles with virtual traffic controllers, which stay in close contact with the automobiles as they approach the intersection. The researchers created a demonstration system for managing autonomous vehicle traffic in road intersections. Each intersection has a computer that coordinates all of the traffic in the most efficient way possible, and each car has a software agent that communicates with upcoming intersections. In the prototype system, a self-driving car takes instructions from the intersection manager as it approaches the intersection, waiting for other cars to through the intersection before it passes through. The system can be modified to work with both autonomous and human-driven cars. The researchers say it also could ensure that approaching emergency response vehicles can get through as quickly as possible, or participate in citywide traffic-shaping efforts, which could help reduce congestion overall. "We can prove that as long as all the cars follow the protocol we defined, then there will not be accidents," Stone says.
Scientists Probe Terrorist Talk on 'Dark Web'
Science News (02/19/12) Rachel Ehrenberg
Researchers working on the Dark Web Project have developed methods for tracking the spread of potentially dangerous ideas through certain rogue and jihadi Web forums. Using a mathematical model known as SIR, which is used by epidemiologists to describe the transmission of disease, the researchers have found that the infection rate for becoming a suicide bomber is two in 10,000, according to University of Arizona researcher Hsinchun Chen. The Dark Web Project, based at the University of Arizona, collects information from blogs, forums, and other Web sites in hidden areas of the Web. Search engines typically explore only what is known as the publicly indexable Web, but the invisible Web, which includes unindexed Web forums, is estimated to contain 500 times as much information as the publicly indexed Web. The analyses of the Dark Web forums suggest that the longer participants are involved in a forum, the more violent their messages become. The collected threads are currently available to researchers through the Dark Web Forum Portal, which contains more than 15 million messages.
Researchers Develop Better Control for DNA-Based Computations
NCSU News (02/17/12) Tracey Peake
Photocaging could provide DNA computing with better control over logic operations, says North Carolina State University professor Alex Deiters, who says he has successfully made portions of the input strands of DNA logic gates photoactivatable. Deiters applied ultraviolet light to several different nucleotides on a DNA logic gate known as an AND gate, which activated the gate and completed its computational event. DNA offers the opportunity to store much more data and the potential to perform calculations in biological environments, but the ability to control when and where computations occur is limited. However, Deiters believes that using light to control DNA logic gates could lead to more complicated, sequential DNA computations, as well as to interfaces between silicon and DNA-based computers. "Since the DNA gates are activated by light, it should be possible to trigger a DNA computation event by converting electrical impulses from a silicon-based computer into light, allowing the interaction of electrical circuits and biological systems," Deiters says. "Being able to control these DNA events both temporally and spatially gives us a variety of new ways to program DNA computers."
Intelligent Software Assigns Appropriate Background Music for Pictures
Saarland University (02/16/12)
Saarland University researchers have developed Picasso, software that makes it easier for movie directors to assign background music for movie scenes. Picasso compares a user's selected scene with a database of movie scenes and their corresponding soundtracks. Saarland's Sebastian Michel and Aleksander Stupar compiled the database by splitting 50 movies into screenshots and their accompanying soundtracks. The software ranks the scenes that look most similar to the user's picture and creates a list of selected tracks. Picasso then uses a mathematical calculation to reduce the list to a few selections and proposes them to the user. Michel says a list of suggestions makes sense because people have different associations with particular pictures. "Some people might connect a picture of a little house surrounded by an idyllic landscape with a romantic weekend for two, while others might think about loneliness," he notes. Michel and Stupar have made Picasso available on a demo Web site and as the free smartphone app PicasSound.
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