Welcome to the June 6, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Google to Alert Users About State-Sponsored Cyberattacks
Washington Post (06/05/12) Hayley Tsukayama; Ellen Nakashima
Google announced that it will display a warning when it detects a suspected state-sponsored cyberattack on a user's account. Such an attack could take the form of malicious software or deceptive phishing emails that trick users into divulging their names and passwords. If it detects an attack, Google's Eric Grosse says the company will display a warning that reads "Warning: we believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now." Security analysts say it makes sense for email and Internet service providers to issue cybersecurity warnings. "It’s the new reality of operating these cloud-based email services when you have millions of customers," says Fusion X president Matt Devost. Google would not say how it detects that the attacks are state-sponsored, only that its analysis, combined with reports from victims of the attacks, strongly suggest when a group has state backing. "We believe it is our duty to be proactive in notifying users about attacks or potential attacks so that they can take action to protect their information," Grosse says.
United Nations Views Flame as Cybersecurity Opportunity
CNet (06/04/12) Declan McCullagh
The United Nations' International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently announced that it believes it should have more authority to deal with cybersecurity threats on the Internet such as the Flame worm that targeted computers in the Middle East. The ITU took credit for discovering Flame, after Kaspersky Lab identified it following a technical analysis. "The mandate that ITU has with regard to cybersecurity goes back to the World Summit on the Information Society, where world leaders gave ITU the mandate as sole facilitator for 'building confidence and security in the use of information and communication technologies,'" says ITU's Paul Conneally. However, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers agree that the ITU must not be allowed to have greater control over the Internet. "If we are not vigilant [the ITU] just might break the Internet by subjecting it to an international regulatory regime designed for old-fashioned telephone service," says Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Last fall, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal to the United Nations asking for the creation of an International Code of Conduct for Information Security, which would control the dissemination of information that undermines other countries' political, economic, and social stability.
How Big Data Gets Real
New York Times (06/04/12) Quentin Hardy
Although "big data" has become a multibillion-dollar industry in less than 10 years, a lot of growth is still needed before the industry has proven standards. The big data industry also needs broad-based literacy, new kinds of management, better tools for reading the information, and privacy safeguards for corporate and personal information. Training people in how to take advantage of big data is another significant challenge. The University of California, Berkeley's iSchool recently hosted a forum on the big data industry and how these hurdles will be overcome in the future. For example, Cloudera says it is currently training 1,500 users a month on how to use the Hadoop database and associated applications. The wide variety of new sources of data has made data quality an issue, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that companies are reluctant to make their data available in a commonly shared algorithm. Meanwhile, one company wants to combine images captured from cell phone cameras with workers in Amazon's Mechanical Turk service in order to put older handwritten documents into digital databases. Other businesses are trying to develop easy-to-use statistical tools in new ways to visualize data and make it easier to understand.
System Improves Automated Monitoring of Security Cameras
MIT News (06/05/12)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a system that can analyze several surveillance cameras more accurately and in less time than it would take a human operator. The system, known as partially observable Markov decision process (POMDP), uses mathematics to reach a compromise between accuracy and speed to enable security staff to act on an intrusion as quickly as possible. The system first conducts a learning phase, in which it assesses how each piece of software works in the type of setting in which it is being applied. The system then adds the information to its mathematical framework, which determines which of the available algorithms to run on the situation. "We plug all of the things we have learned into the POMDP framework, and it comes up with a policy that might tell you to start out with a skin analysis, for example, and then depending what you find out you might run an analysis to try to figure out who the person is, or use a tracking system to figure out where they are [in each frame]," says MIT's Christopher Amato. The system also can take context into account when analyzing a set of images.
Researchers Use Flexible Channel Width to Improve User Experience on Wireless Systems
NCSU News (06/04/12) Matt Shipman
A new technique developed by researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) improves the performance of multi-hop wireless networks. Such networks have trouble providing equitable service to its users due to limited bandwidth and interference with data transmission between wireless nodes. NCSU's dynamic technique enables multi-hop networks to take advantage of technology that can efficiently split the bandwidth of the wireless spectrum into channels of different sizes based on the needs of users of the network. "The amount of channel width allotted to users is constantly being modified to maximize the efficiency of the system and avoid what are, basically, data traffic jams," says NCSU professor Rudra Dutta. Ph.D. student Parth Pathak notes that "our objective is to maximize throughput while ensuring that all users get similar 'quality of experience' from the wireless system, meaning that users get similar levels of satisfaction from the performance they experience from whatever applications they're running." In simulation models involving the technique, there was a significant improvement in data throughput and benefit for all users. The researchers plan to use NCSU's CentMesh wireless network to test the method in real-world conditions.
Teaching Tree-Thinking Through Touch
Harvard University (06/04/12) Michael Patrick Rutter
Computer scientists, cognitive psychologists, and biologists at Harvard, Northwestern, Wellesley, and Tufts universities have developed two games, Phylo-Genie and Build-a-Tree, with the goal of teaching evolutionary concepts. The games are educational and aim to make the process of learning difficult material engaging and collaborative. The games take advantage of a multi-touchscreen tabletop, which enables several people to use it simultaneously, either working on independent projects or collaborating on a single project. Phylo-Genie attempts to address the misconceptions that students hold even at the college level. The game walks students through a scenario in which they have been bitten by a rare snake and must identify its closest relatives in order to find the correct anti-venom. Build-a-Tree was designed with an informal museum environment in mind. The game asks users to construct phylogenetic trees by dragging items toward one another in the correct order. Harvard's Chia Shen says the goal is to encourage "active prolonged engagement" rather than "planned discovery." "This is our experiment: Can we build something that is not as phenomenon-driven but can still engage them?" Shen says. "I think we've succeeded in that."
U of S Researchers Create Powerful New Tool for Research and Drug Development
University of Saskatchewan (06/04/12) Michael Robin
An interdisciplinary and collaborative project at the University of Saskatchewan has resulted in an alternate method for analyzing kinases, a type of enzyme that is involved in virtually every cellular function. Saskatchewan professor Tony Kusalik, a computer scientist who is an expert in bioinformatics, collaborated with biochemistry professor Scott Napper to develop software that is tailor-made for kinases. The microarray is the standard lab tool for analyzing kinases, and Napper says it can generate vast volumes of data that can make no sense. Kusalik says the problem is how that volume of data was being handled. He likens the problem to using a descrambler box from one cable company to try to watch television from another provider, which might lead to fuzzy glimpses of the picture but no clear view of the entire program. "By developing a technique specifically designed for kinase microarrays we are able to get more data, and with more accuracy," Kusalik says. He says some research groups have inquired about using the tool to run their existing data sets. The technology could become a key tool globally for drug research and development.
NSF Releases Report Detailing Substantial Growth in Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering in the Past Decade
National Science Foundation (06/01/12) Deborah Wing
The number of graduate students enrolled in science, engineering, and health programs in the United States was approximately 632,700 as of fall 2010, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation's Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. The figure is up 30 percent from 493,000 graduate students in 2000. The number of first-time, full-time graduate students enrolled in science, engineering, and health programs rose to nearly 118,500 in 2010, which is a 50 percent increase from approximately 78,400 graduate students in 2000. Biomedical engineering has been one of the fastest growing fields of science and engineering. Enrollment for biomedical engineering studies has risen by more than 7 percent from 2009 to 2010. However, over the last decade, enrollment has soared from about 3,200 graduate students in 2000 to nearly 8,500 graduate students in 2010, which marks the most rapid growth level at 165 percent.
Prophets of Zoom
Economist Technology Quarterly (06/12)
Deep-zooming software, known as zoomable user interfaces (ZUIs), enable information such as text, images, and video to sit on a single, limitless surface that can be viewed at whatever size works best. One type of presentation software, developed by Prezi, is based on this kind of "infinite canvas." Before giving a demonstration, the presenter can pick waypoints on the canvas to be visited in sequence by pressing a button. The software is equipped with smooth pans, zooms, and rotations from one to the next. In addition, researchers at Microsoft, the University of California, Berkeley, and Moscow State University are developing ChronoZoom, software that displays timeline presentations with a zoom-based approach. Events are described along a timeline using text, images, and video. The researchers say the zoom-based approach can transform multipage Web sites into a single broad surface that simultaneously displays all content. Meanwhile, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) are developing VisIt, software that shows particle behavior in nuclear reactions as simple animations. VisIt's zooming ranges from viewing the Milky Way galaxy to a grain of sand, says LBNL's Becky Springmeyer.
Over-55s Pick Passwords Twice as Secure as Teenagers'
New Scientist (06/01/12) Jacob Aron
People over the age of 55 pick passwords that are twice as strong of those chosen by people under 25 years old, according to University of Cambridge researchers, who recently analyzed the passwords of nearly 70 million Yahoo! users. The researchers also calculated the password strengths for different demographic groups and compared the results. A comparison among different nationalities found that German and Korean speakers chose the strongest passwords, while Indonesians picked the weakest. Password strength is measured in bits, where cracking one bit is equal to the chance of correctly guessing a coin toss, and each additional bit doubles the password's strength. The researchers, led by Cambridge's Joseph Bonneau, found that user-chosen passwords offer less than 10 bits of security against online attacks, and about 20 bits of security against offline attacks. The researchers note their finding is surprising, since even a randomly selected six-character password comprised of numbers and upper- and lower-case letters should offer 32 bits of security. Bonneau attributes the discrepancy to people choosing much easier passwords than those theoretically permitted. He recommends assigning people randomly picked nine-digit passwords instead, which would yield 30 bits of security against every conceivable attack.
Computer-Designed Proteins Programmed to Disarm a Variety of Flu Viruses
UW Today (06/01/12) Leila Gray
University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that proteins found in nature that do not normally bind with the flu can be engineered using computer modeling to act as broad-spectrum antiviral agents against a variety of flu virus strains. "One of these engineered proteins has a flu-fighting potency that rivals that of several human monoclonal antibodies," says Washington professor David Baker. The computer-designed influenza inhibitors are constructed using a computer modeling system to fit perfectly into a specific nano-sized target on flu viruses. The models can describe the landscapes of forces involved on the submicroscopic scale. The researchers want to create antivirals that can react against a wide variety of H subtypes, which could lead to a comprehensive therapy for influenza. The new methods could be "a powerful route to inhibitors or binders for any surface patch on any desired target of interest," Baker says. He notes that "we anticipate that our approach combining computational design followed by comprehensive energy landscape mapping will be widely useful in generating high-affinity and high-specificity binders to a broad range of targets for use in therapeutics and diagnostics."
Quantum Teleportation Leaps Forward
Science News (05/31/12) Alexandra Witze
Two recent studies have shown that quantum teleportation, which transports the quantum state of one particle to another, is possible. University of Vienna researchers previously set a distance record using a pair of entangled photons to transmit a piece of quantum information more than 143 kilometers. Those researchers recently reported a cleaner and more robust version of the same experiment using multiple entangled photons. They added a phase shift into the laser beams that made the final measurement cleaner and easier to pick out from background signals. The technique, called active feed-forward, is "an essential ingredient in future applications such as communication between quantum computers," notes Vienna's Anton Zeilinger. The researchers say their "experiment confirms the maturity and applicability of the involved technologies in real-world scenarios, and is a milestone towards future satellite-based quantum teleportation." Separately, Chinese researchers entangled many photons together and teleported information 97 kilometers across a lake in China, an accomplishment two orders of magnitude farther than any other multiphoton teleportation experiment, according to the University of Science and Technology of China's Jian-Wei Pan. "Our results show that even with high-loss ground to satellite uplink channels, quantum teleportation can be realized," the Chinese researchers say.
Digitizing our Cultural Heritage
Europe's Newsroom (05/30/12)
The European Commission (EC) has been exploring the best ways to use information and communications technology to preserve, enrich, and provide access to Europe's cultural heritage for the benefit of citizens and future generations. As part of the EC's Digital Agenda, several projects are examining ways to promote European cinema and establish the sustainable funding of the central European digital library, known as Europeana, which currently contains more than 23 million records from more than 2,200 institutions. Europeana gives the research community and European citizens a single point of entry to a wealth of cultural data, while Web entrepreneurs can access a wide variety of digitized content for use in developing new services and products. For example, the D2ME project is developing a tool that converts metadata from a diverse range of source formats into the Europeana Data Model, which powers the indexing and search functionality of Europeana. Other Europeana projects include the Ev2 project, ARtSENSE, the CHESS project, the CULTURA project, the V-City project, and the 3D-COFORM project.
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