Welcome to the June 20, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S., Israel Developed Flame Computer Virus to Slow Iranian Nuclear Efforts, Officials Say
Washington Post (06/20/12) Ellen Nakashima; Greg Miller; Julie Tate
Western officials say the Flame virus, which was discovered last month following a cyberattack on the Iranian oil sector, was developed by U.S. and Israel government programmers. Flame was reportedly developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) Information Operations Center. The Israeli military also assisted in the development of Flame, which Western officials say was intended to collect intelligence ahead of cyberattacks against Iran's nuclear program. Flame reportedly disguised itself as a Microsoft software update and was able to avoid being detected for a number of years by using a state-of-the-art program to break an encryption algorithm. After it infected Iran's computer networks, Flame was designed to secretly map and monitor those networks and send intelligence back to its handlers. Officials also say that Flame was part of the classified Olympic Games operation that included the Stuxnet virus. However, Flame was developed at least five years ago, before Stuxnet, experts say. Kaspersky Lab researcher Roel Schouwenberg says Flame was likely used as a "kickstarter" to help launch the Stuxnet project. Despite the discovery of the Flame virus, the NSA and the CIA reportedly are continuing to develop new cyberweapons.
Daedalus Catches Cyberattacks Realtime
PhysOrg.com (06/20/12) Nancy Owano
Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) has developed the Direct Alert Environment for Darknet and Livenet Unified Security (Daedalus) system, a cyberattack alert system that can visibly render network attacks in real time. Daedalus scans computers for suspicious activity and can visualize attacks as they move through the network. The system also can reveal where attackers are focusing their efforts, which is depicted as a stream of arrows moving along iridescent lines. For example, Daedalus can see if a USB flash drive with a virus infects a machine, and it can identify and isolate the malignant traffic on-screen, sending an email to support staff and displaying an alert to the user. The system is designed to be used with other systems to improve network security within organizations. "We previously created a system called nicter for observing cyberattacks," say NICT researchers. "We also built an observation network in Japan, called the Darknet Observation Network, to cover [Internet Protocol] addresses not used in nicter." NICT will provide Daedalus free of charge to educational institutions where nicter sensors can be installed.
Europe Overtakes U.S. in Physics Pursuing God Particle
Bloomberg (06/19/12) Oliver Staley
U.S. leadership in physics research, which led to breakthroughs such as transistors, microchips, and the modern computer industry, is falling behind Europe in the pursuit of the Higgs boson, also known as the God particle, believed to generate mass and bind the universe together. The European CERN consortium has taken the lead in the field of subatomic particle research following the U.S. Energy Department's shutdown of the Tevatron particle accelerator in 2011. Consequently, U.S. business has less chance of benefiting from technological advances developed by CERN's Large Hadron Collier (LHC). The LHC has already yielded innovations such as scintillating crystals incorporated into medical-diagnostic equipment in France and grid computing currently used by a British firm to model computer data for the pharmaceutical sector. An earlier report from the U.S.'s National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine warned that U.S. global competitiveness is under threat from flagging public investment in science. In terms of math and science education in public schools, the United States is lagging behind other industrialized countries. The study also found that the United States comes in 27th place in the percentage of college students obtaining undergraduate degrees in science or engineering degrees.
How Much Does Cybercrime Cost?
University of Cambridge (06/18/12)
University of Cambridge researchers have found that the cost of protecting against cybercrime can exceed the cost of the actual threat. They recommend that fewer resources be dedicated to stopping cybercrime and more be spent catching cybercriminals. "As countries scramble to invest in security to minimize cyberrisks, governments want to know how large that investment should be and where the money should be spent," says Cambridge professor Ross Anderson. However, the researchers say that many existing sources of data either under- or over-estimate the level of risk. They found that fraud within the welfare and tax systems cost each citizen an average of a few hundred pounds Sterling a year, and fraud associated with payment cards and online banking costs a few tens of pounds Sterling a year. However, the fear of fraud by businesses and consumers poses an indirect threat on the economy that is several times higher. Overall, the study concluded that cybercriminals are pulling in a few tens of pounds Sterling from every citizen per year, but the indirect costs to those citizens, either in protective measures such as antivirus programs or in cleaning up infected PCs, is at least 10 times as much.
Admen Spot an Enemy: W3C
Technology Review (06/19/12) Tom Simonite
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is developing a new "Do Not Track" standard so Web users can choose to not have their online activities monitored by cookies. However, advertising agencies claim the standards-setting process has turned into a threat that could lead to the end of free online content. The W3C recently convened the Tracking Protection Working Group, which has been unable to agree on precisely how Do Not Track should change the behavior of a Web page and its advertising technology. Although the W3C can specify how Web sites communicate, it will not tell companies how to present Do Not Track information to users, notes Carnegie Mellon University professor Lorrie Cranor. "With Do Not Track, the technology issues are the least [of the] concerns," Cranor says. Microsoft recently announced plans to create the next version of its Internet Explorer browser with Do Not Track switched on by default. However, advertisers are worried that most users will never adjust the default settings. Other say the debate is overshadowing more important privacy issues. "We're squabbling over default browser settings, and it has swallowed up all other privacy issues," says working group member Jules Polonetsky.
The Rich Legacy of Alan Turing
Wired.co.uk (06/18/12) Liat Clark; Ian Steadman
Alan Turing left behind a rich legacy of technological milestones that include a basic model for all computing devices. One of his most significant achievements was the development of the Naval Bombe, which cracked the German Enigma code and played a key role in an Allied victory in World War II. Perhaps even more substantial was Turing's work into what came to be called the Turing machine and universal computability, with his proposal of a device capable of simulating any algorithmic computation. It was the initial proposal for a multifunctional machine whose operations were determined by a program held within a memory store rather than by the modification of the device's structure or wiring. Turning machines remain a staple of computer science research and education, while Turing also co-hypothesized the concept of a universal Turning machine that can model the algorithmic functions of any other machine of its kind. Turning also did pioneering work on a chess-playing computer program called Turbochamp, and developed a technique for securely encrypting and decrypting telephone conversations in 1944. The latter breakthrough was instrumental in Bell Labs' creation of the SIGSALY device, which was the first to employ numerous digitally secure speech ideas, and which was used for highly clandestine Allied communications.
Making it Easier to Build Secure Web Applications
MIT News (06/18/12) Larry Hardesty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed Aeolus, a programming system for preventing information leaks in new applications. Aeolus is designed for programmers developing large, distributed Web applications. The system should prove much easier to use than its predecessors, says MIT professor Barbara Liskov, who led Aeolus' development. “Just making it easy to do things like this means people will be likely to do them,” Liskov says. The researchers say Aeolus provides a much more intuitive way to think about authorization because it enables programmers to describe a hierarchy of system users, instead of just providing rules for ticket dispensation. The hierarchical approach also makes it easier to revoke access privileges. Aeolus provides several important mechanisms that work in the background to maintain security, and it makes sure that data in the transaction record can never leak to other users of the same application or other applications running on the same server. The researchers note that Aeolus is a system for controlling information flow, not data access. "The belief of people who work on this second approach, which is the information-flow approach, is that it makes it easier to build applications, compared to the access-control approach," Liskov says.
'Hallucinating' Robots Arrange Rooms to Suit Human Needs
Cornell Chronicle (06/15/12) Bill Steele
Cornell University researchers have taught robots to "hallucinate" where and how humans might stand, sit, or work in a room, and place objects in their usual relationship to those imaginary people. The researchers say that relating objects to people minimizes mistakes and makes computation easier because each object is described in terms of its relationship to a small set of human poses, instead of to the long list of other objects in a scene. The robot calculates the distance of objects from various parts of the imagined human figures and notes the orientation of the objects. "It is more important for a robot to figure out how an object is to be used by humans, rather than what the object is," says Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena. In a new environment, the robot places human figures in a three-dimensional image of a room, locating them in relation to the objects and furniture already there. "It puts a sample of human poses in the environment, then figures out which ones are relevant and ignores the others," Saxena says. The robot then decides where new objects should be placed in relation to the human figures, and carries out the action.
Simultaneous Translation: University Without Language Barriers
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (06/11/12) Margarete Lehné
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) researchers have developed a computer-based automatic simultaneous translation service. The translator, which is part of a larger KIT initiative to overcome language barriers, is aimed at helping attract talented students from around the world. "The lecture translator automatically records the lecture, transcribes the text into a written version, and translates it into English in real time," says KIT professor Alex Waibel. The translator blends automatic speech recognition and statistic machine-translation technologies into an integrated system. Auxiliary elements organize the text, manage punctuation, treat German compound words, record the lecture, and display the translation result. The various elements are then combined by the service infrastructure. The translator also translates transparencies presented during a lecture. The researchers plan to adapt the system to support several languages as well as a larger number of lectures. "The translation is not always perfect, but it is part of the language tools, by means of which students are enabled to better follow the lectures in spite of language barriers," Waibel says.
On the Origin of Music by Means of Natural Selection
Imperial College London (06/19/12)
Scientists at Imperial College London have used a computer program to test a theory that changes in language, art, and music evolve through Darwinian natural selection, similar to the evolution of living things. The team developed an algorithm, dubbed DarwinTunes, which produced 100 loops of random sound, each eight seconds long. About 7,000 online musical consumers scored the loops, then DarwinTunes mated the top 10 loops, pairing them as parents and mingling musical elements of each pair. Twenty newly created loops replaced the original parents and less pleasing non-parents, representing one generation of musical evolution. DarwinTunes now has evolved through 2,513 generations. The scientists then tested the likability of loops from different generations by asking listeners to rate them in a separate experiment. Although the volunteers did not know the generational age of the loops, they consistently rated the more evolved music as most appealing. The researchers say this independently validated the argument that the music was improving over time.
Stanford's Free Online iPhone and iPad Courses Return With Peer-to-Peer Help, a First for iTunes U
Stanford Report (CA) (06/19/12) Dan Stober
Stanford University will incorporate the social learning platform Piazza into this summer's online course for creating iPhone and iPad apps. The peer-to-peer social feature will make it easier for students to obtain answers to questions from course instructors and fellow participants. The free online video course will run from June 25 to Aug. 27, and will be hosted on iTunes U. "There is an enormous potential for collaboration and community-building though Q&A and problem-solving with friends from across the globe," says Stanford's Brent Izutsu. Earlier versions of the iPhone and iPad apps course have been enormously popular. Participants do not receive grades or credits, but the first 1,000 to register may have their final project apps evaluated for special showcasing on Stanford's iTunes U site. "Stanford's experiment with iTunes U points the way toward an unprecedented expansion in the availability of not just content but active online learning around the world," says Piazza CEO Pooja Sankar.
Tablet PCs Preserve Indigenous Knowledge
New Scientist (06/18/12) Niall Firth
Aalborg University researchers are developing a tablet computer-based system that can help indigenous people maintain their local knowledge. The researchers are developing a three-dimensional (3D) visualization of a local Namibian village, called Erindiroukambe, on a tablet computer. The villagers' collective knowledge will be embedded in the virtual village to be stored for future generations. The researchers, led by Aalborg's Kasper Rodil, also are developing a drawing application for the tablet that mimics the way the elders draw diagrams in the sand to explain what they mean. "The idea is that we have as little friction as possible between the device and the user," Rodil says. For villagers who had never before used a computer, the swipes and finger taps of the tablet came naturally and were easy to learn. The 3D environment shows avatars that depict the villagers as they complete various tasks. Short video segments appear as floating two-dimensional panels in the virtual village. Rodil says other links will access more general knowledge, such as which herbs can be used to treat specific ailments, how to look after animals, or how to navigate between scattered villages using the sun.
How to Stay on Top
Inside Higher Ed (06/15/12) Kevin Kiley
A U.S. National Research Council (NRC) report lists 10 actions the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others should take to maintain the U.S.'s leadership role in research. To combat funding limitations, the report recommends more stable policies and funding for university-performed research and graduate education. The federal government also should provide full funding for the amount authorized in the America COMPETES Act, which the report says would double the level of basic research conducted by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. The report also calls for the development of a Strategic Investment Program, which would fund endowed faculty chairs and improvements to cyberinfrastructure. The report says the federal government should apportion $7 billion a year over the next 10 years for the program, with universities to provide matching funds. In addition, the report calls for businesses to get more involved in higher education. The current model is a buyer-seller relationship, in which companies can go in, take the intellectual property and students they want, and not have to contribute too much back to the universities, says NRC chair Charles O. Holliday Jr.
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