Welcome to the August 15, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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Kaspersky Pleads for Crypto Help to Probe Gauss Malware
Computerworld (08/14/12) Gregg Keizer
Kaspersky Lab researchers recently called on leading cryptographers to help break the encryption of a mysterious warhead delivered by the Gauss cybersurveillance malware. "We are asking anyone interested in cryptology and mathematics to join us in solving the mystery and extracting the hidden payload," according to a Kaspersky Lab blog post. Although Kaspersky has determined that the payload is delivered via USB flash drives, it has been unable to decrypt the module, which is encrypted with a RC4 key. Since Gauss has connections to the Flame malware, and because most experts believe Flame was linked to Stuxnet, the Kaspersky researchers say Gauss' encrypted payload may contain Stuxnet-like code that targets supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitor and control industrial processes. "The resource section [of the encrypted payload] is big enough to contain a Stuxnet-like SCADA-targeted attack code and all the precautions used by the authors indicate that the target is indeed high profile," the company says. Kaspersky previously noted that like Stuxnet, Gauss targets a now-patched Windows vulnerability and uses USB drives to infect computers not connected to the Internet.
NTU Scientist Invents Pocket Living Room TV
Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) (08/13/12) Lester Kok
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) researchers have developed Social Cloud TV, which they say is a multi-screen mobile social TV experience that enables users to have video and chat sessions on any number of connected mobile devices. NTU professor Wen Yonggang says Social Cloud TV is the next frontier of TV experience because it enables users to "bring the social experience of watching television in the living room wherever they go." The system leverages a cloud backend for media processing, which allows the same video to be streamed into devices in the most suitable format. Users viewing a specific TV program can invite family and friends to join the session, either from the phone book or the social networking contacts list. The researchers say their human-computer interaction technology enables any TV show to be brought to mobile devices seamlessly and migrated across multiple screens. "You could watch a video with your classmates on the computer, and just before you leave school, ‘pull’ the show into your tablet and continue watching on the go," Yonggang says. The system's software also enables users to share their own content, such as online videos, with others via social networks.
Need an Expert? Try the Crowd
University of Vermont (08/14/12) Joshua E. Brown
University of Vermont researchers recently completed a study that aimed to discover if volunteers who visited two different Web sites could pose, refine, and answer questions of each other that could effectively predict the volunteer's body weight and home electricity use. The researchers found that the self-directed questions and answers led to computer models that accurately predict a user's monthly electricity usage and body mass index. "It’s proof of concept that a crowd actually can come up with good questions that lead to good hypotheses," says Vermont professor Josh Bongard. However, the researchers acknowledge that the variables revealed by the questions and answers on the Web sites are correlated outcomes and not actual causes. "We’re not arguing that this study is actually predictive of the causes, but improvements to this method may lead in that direction," says Vermont professor Paul Hines. The researchers see the new method as a way to help accelerate the process of scientific discovery. "We’re looking for an experimental platform where, instead of waiting to read a journal article every year about what’s been learned about obesity, a research site could be changing and updating new findings constantly as people add their questions and insights," Bongard says.
Swiss Scientists Develop Algorithm to Sniff Out the Source of Malware and Spam Attacks
IDG News Service (08/13/12) Loek Essers
Researchers have developed an algorithm that can find the source of a computer virus, malware, or spam attack by checking only a small percentage of connections in a network. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Pedro Pinto and colleagues devised the algorithm to estimate the possible location of the source from measurements collected by sparsely placed observers or sensors. The algorithm could help find the specific computer in the network that has been used to send spam so the network provider can shut it down. The network structure is used to examine who is connected to whom, as well as to determine the arrival time of the virus to the sensors. Pinto says the algorithm has to analyze only 10 percent to 20 percent of all the nodes in a network to determine what the likely source of the attack is. "Sometimes this is 5 percent," he points out, noting that the number of nodes that need to be analyzed depends on the complexity of the network. Other potential applications for the algorithm include finding the source of biological viruses, epidemics, airborne contaminants let loose by terrorists, or rumors spreading on Facebook.
Supercomputers Solve Riddle of Congenital Heart Defects
University of Copenhagen (08/13/12)
University of Copenhagen researchers used a supercomputer to analyze millions of data points relating to congenital heart defects and found that a wide variety of risk factors influence the molecular biology of heart development. "The discovery of a biological common denominator among many thousands of risk factors is an important step in health research, which in time can improve the prevention and diagnosis of congenital heart defects," says Copenhagen professor Lars Allan Larsen. The researchers analyzed several thousand genetic mutations and environmental risk factors associated with heart malformations with the goal of finding a pattern. "Our investigations show that many different genetic factors together with environmental factors can influence the same biological system and cause disease," says Harvard University's Kasper Lage. "The results are also interesting in a broader perspective, because it is probable that such interactions are also valid for diseases such as schizophrenia, autism, diabetes, and cancer." Copenhagen professor Soren Brunak notes the study's outcomes illustrate how different combinations of variations in hereditary material can dispose an individual to disease, which may be useful in improving the efficiency of treatment by customizing an optimal approach for each individual patient.
Dartmouth Researchers Develop Smart Bracelets
Dartmouth Online (NH) (08/14/12) Claire Groden
Dartmouth College researchers have developed a sensor bracelet that is designed to authenticate the wearer and detect a range of medical needs, both for convenience and for potentially aiding in life-threatening situations. The device also is compatible with fitness applications, and it can differentiate between users sharing the device. "The general approach is to provide confidence to the data coming in," says Dartmouth post-doctoral student Jacob Sorber. The sensor bracelet relies on bioimpedance to identify individuals, as the distribution of bone, fat, muscle, and other tissue types in each person's body is unique and can be used for identification. "We wanted something that would integrate into a person's life seamlessly and passively," says Dartmouth Ph.D. candidate Cory Cornelius, who led the research. Sorber points out that some measures of bioimpedance are more variable than others, and the project will have to find and use less changeable measures. The research project is supported by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which was provided to the Institute for Security, Technology, and Society for the Trustworthy Information System for Health Care effort, notes Dartmouth professor David Kotz.
Research Shows How Computation Can Predict Group Conflict
University of Wisconsin-Madison (08/13/12) Marianne English
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) have developed a computational approach for determining whether individuals behave predictably during conflicts. With data from previous fights, the team examined how much memory individuals in the group would need to make predictions themselves. The analysis proposes a novel estimate of cognitive burden, meaning the minimal amount of information an organism needs to remember to make a prediction. "So what you get is a model where you have to remember fewer things but you still get very high predictive power--that's what we're interested in," says WID's Bryan Daniels, who led the study. The researchers observed bouts of natural fighting in a group of 84 captive pigtailed macaques. By recording the individual's involvement in fights, the researchers were able to create models that showed the likelihood any number of individuals would engage in conflict in hypothetical situations. "Given this data, we found that the most memory it would take to figure out the regularities is about 1,000 bits of information," Daniels says. Future research will seek to determine how individuals' knowledge of alliances and feuds fine-tunes their own decisions and changes the groups' collective pattern of conflict.
Open Source Project to Get Gadgets Talking Via the Net
BBC News (08/10/12) Zoe Kleinman
More than 5,400 developers have downloaded Webinos, an open source operating system developed with the support of more than 30 organizations that is designed to enable digital devices to communicate with each other. The developers are exploring ways Webinos could be employed to link a wide range of devices, including mobile phones, car stereos, heart monitors, and TVs. "People want to control the technology because if you control the technology you control the money," says Webinos technical coordinator Nick Allott. "But it should be free and open to everybody." He notes Webinos is designed to function as an alternative to the proprietary systems from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla. Webinos runs on personal computers and Android-operated mobile devices. BMW, the World Wide Web Consortium, Sony, Samsung, and Telefonica are among the $18.4 million project's technical partners. The developers say a major advantage to Webinos is the fact that users have total control over who has access to the data. Allott notes that so far people in 155 countries have accessed the Webinos Web site.
Autonomous Robotic Plane Flies Indoors
MIT News (08/10/12) Caroline McCall
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed autonomous-control algorithms to control the indoor flight of global-positioning system-denied airplanes. The researchers recently completed a series of flight tests in which an autonomous robotic plane running the new state-estimation algorithms successfully navigated its way among the pillars of an underground parking garage. The researchers built their own plane for the experiment and equipped it with broad and short wings, which allow it to fly at relatively low speeds and make tight turns while still providing the cargo capacity to carry the electronics that run the algorithms. Since there are so many factors involved in determining the position of the plane during flight, the plane has to simultaneously calculate 15 different values. The researchers solved this problem by combing a particle filter algorithm, which is very accurate but time consuming, and a Kalman filter algorithm, which is accurate only under certain limiting assumptions and very efficient. They say the key was to use the particle filter for only those variables that required it and then translate the results back into the language of the Kalman filter.
'Smart Fingertips' Pave Way for Virtual Sensations
ScienceNOW (08/09/12) Krystnell A. Storr
A team of nanoengineers has created fingertip-based technology that can transmit electronic signals to the skin. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign's John Rogers and colleagues created circuits that can bend, stretch, and fold by cutting up nanometer-sized strips of silicon, implanting thin, wavy strips of gold to conduct electricity, and mounting the entire circuit in a stretchable, spider web-type mesh of polymer as a support. The researchers embedded the circuit-polyimide structure onto a hollow tube of silicone that had been fashioned in the shape of a finger, and flipped the structure inside out like a sock so that the circuit, which was once on the outside of the tube, was on the inside where it could touch a finger placed against it. The nanoengineers tested the electronic fingers by putting them on and pressing flat objects such as the top of a desk, and they felt mild tingling. The researchers believe this is the first step in creating electronic signals that could be sent to the fingers to virtually recreate sensations such as heat, pressure, and texture. The electronic fingers mold to the shape of the hand, and could be incorporated into a smart glove and used to perform virtual surgical training.
Computer Scientists Reveal How Aquatic Olympic Gold is Captured--Above and Below the Surface
New York University (08/09/12) James Devitt
New York University (NYU) researchers followed Olympic swimmers and divers during their training sessions and used motion-capture techniques to reveal their movement above and below the water's surface. The researchers at NYU's Movement Laboratory worked with Manhattan Mocap and the New York Times to analyze gold medalist Dana Vollmer, silver medalist Abby Johnston, and bronze medalist Nicholas McCrory. The team created the AquaCap system to capture underwater motion. It was used to display Vollmer's butterfly stroke and underwater dolphin kick, deconstructing the technique the swimmer used to win the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly in world-record time. Existing motion-capture technology records the movements of individuals, who wear suits that reflect light to enable the recording of their actions. The technology then translates the movements into digital models for three-dimensional animation. The NYU team developed computer-vision technology that allows for the tracking and recording of people's movements straight from video and without the use of motion-capture suits.
Drexel Collaboration Leads to Apps for Visually Impaired
Philadelphia Inquirer (08/09/12) Jeff Gelles
Drexel University computer science students, as part of the VisAssist project, have developed mobile apps that help blind or visually impaired persons use computers and access the Internet. Three of the five apps, which work on Android devices, help the visually impaired use Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. The other two apps feature a faster keyboard that works anytime a user needs to type and an enhanced magnifier that helps users read. "For me, personally, it was the option to do something good--to try to make a difference in people's lives," says Drexel student Nathan Vecchiarelli. The project, which was done in collaboration with the Overbrook School for the Blind, could inspire future developers to create more philanthropic applications, notes Drexel professor Jeff Salvage. The project won top honors among 135 engineering projects at Drexel. Overbrook teacher Stephanie Hays says Drexel's students worked closely with Overbrook's students to develop the apps. "The awesome part was right at the end, when the Drexel guys had the finished apps and the students were able to try them," Hays says. "The students were saying 'Oh, my goodness, I can read this.' 'Wow, I really like this.'"
UC San Diego Computer Scientists Explore Secure Browser Design
UCSD News (CA) (08/09/12) Doug Ramsey
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers say they have developed a new approach to secure browsing design. They say previous verification techniques operate on a model of the browser and not its actual implementation, which creates a discrepancy between what is verified and what is implemented and enables hackers to infiltrate a browser even if it has been verified using strong formal methods. Although computer scientists have solved this problem by using formal proofs, the proofs have millions of lines of code and are difficult to create. The UCSD researchers have developed a technique, called formal shim verification, which consists of creating a small browser kernel that mediates access to resources for all other browser components and then formally verifies that the browser kernel is correct in a proof assistant. Using their design, the researchers created Quark, a Web browser that users a kernel-based architecture. The Quark kernel has been verified in full formal detail using a proof assistant, enabling it to make strong guarantees about the security of the browser. Quark "exploits formal shim verification and enables us to verify security properties for a million lines of code while reasoning about only a few hundred lines of code in the kernel," says UCSD's Dongseok Jang.
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