Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the February 11, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


U.S. Said to Be Target of Massive Cyber-Espionage Campaign
Washington Post (02/10/13) Ellen Nakashima

The United States is the target of a massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign that threatens the country's economic competitiveness, according to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The report identifies China as the most aggressive country in trying to penetrate U.S. computer systems, although Russia, Israel, and France also were cited as having engaged in hacking for economic intelligence. Cyber-espionage increasingly is threatening the U.S.'s economic interests and the Obama administration is looking for ways to counter the online theft of trade secrets. "We need the NIE on cyber for a systematic and comprehensive understanding of what the most dangerous technologies are, who are the most threatening actors, and what are our greatest vulnerabilities," says former deputy defense secretary William J. Lynn III. A majority of China's cyberattacks are thought to be aimed at commercial targets with ties to military technology. "The problem with foreign cyber­espionage is not that it is an existential threat, but that it is invisible, and invisibility promotes inaction," according to a former government official. “It’s fair to say we’re already living in an age of state-led cyberwar, even if most of us aren’t aware of it,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt.


Study Uses Grins and Frowns to Predict Online Game Hits
Phys.Org (02/11/13)

Researchers at Academia Sinica's Institute of Information Science have developed a method for predicting an online game's success by studying gamers' initial emotional response. The researchers analyzed the movements of gamers' smile and frown muscles during the first 45 minutes of play. The model should be able to forecast a game's addictiveness according to facial electromyography (EMG) measures from a focus group, according to the researchers. First, the researchers used archival game data and several EMG experiments for a forecasting model that could predict a game's ability to retain active players for a long time. Next, they analyzed the account activity records of 11 games, generated a general addictiveness index, and then gathered 155 hours of facial-expression data from 84 gamers. The researchers hope to help game publishers avoid wasting money on bad investments and to proceed with developing games that are more likely to succeed.


Android Paternity Test App Developed by UC Irvine Computer Scientists
eWeek (02/08/13) Brian T. Horowitz

University of California, Irvine researchers have developed GenoDroid, a genomic application that conducts real-time paternity tests and could be used in personalized medicine. GenoDroid relies on encryption techniques to preserve the privacy of people's DNA. The system "shows that today it's practical to run privacy-preserving genomic applications [and] operations, on modern smartphones--these ubiquitous personal devices," says Irvine professor Gene Tsudik. The researchers tested the application with publicly available genomic data and found that it can determine in less than a second whether one person is the father of another. "The paternity test app compares the lengths of specific DNA segments from two individuals to determine how many of them match in the two samples," Tsudik says. The program uses a double-blind technique that only indicates whether the DNA is a match or not, and does not reveal any other information about the DNA. The researchers note that GenoDroid currently is limited to a quick paternity test, but they say it could be expanded when DNA digitization becomes more common. "Privacy of genomic information is really, really important," Tsudik says. "It is possible to get privacy and still do these kinds of genomic operations."


Does Gestural Computing Break Fitts' Law?
Technology Review (02/08/13) John Pavlus

In an interview, Francisco Inchauste, a senior user experience designer for Universal Mind, discusses whether Fitts' Law is still relevant in a post-graphical user interface (GUI) world. Fitts' Law, the foundational principle of human-computer interaction in the windows, icons, menus, and point era, mathematically models how quickly a user can point to something, and it says moving a pointer a short distance to a large target is faster than moving a larger distance to a smaller target. Inchauste believes both the device/screen size and the design of the interface affect how close users are to following the rules. Some of Apple's approach to touch still follows Fitts' Law, with the targets being larger and mostly obvious. "However, it begins to bring up other usability issues when everything looks tappable, since people got carried away with this as a style," Inchauste says. "With these more minimal/content interfaces, we don't initially follow Fitts' Law until the targets are discovered." Inchauste's Rise gestural interface at first glance appears to break Fitts' Law because the user cannot directly interact with the target until they understand the behavior of the interface, but he says once they discover the targets, they begin to follow all of the rules.


Researchers Create 'Building Block' of Quantum Networks
Institute of Physics (02/08/13)

A group of U.S. researchers have constructed a proof-of-concept device that could clear a path for on-chip optical quantum networks by combining a single nitrogen-vacancy center in diamond with an optical resonator and an optical waveguide. The device could potentially function as the memory or processing element of such a network and become one of the building blocks of quantum networks. The photoluminescent nitrogen-vacancy center both absorbs and emits photons, and the emitted photons are entangled with the center. The center is located within the resonator as it is more likely to discharge photons than when it is placed in the waveguide or within plain diamond. The waveguide steers the photons in a desired direction through gratings at either end. "In this work we ... demonstrate that photons--the information carriers--from a single nitrogen-vacancy center can be coupled to an optical resonator and then further coupled to a photonic waveguide," says lead study author and professor Andrei Faraon. "We hope that multiple devices of this kind will be interconnected in a photonic network on a chip."


Networks of Probability
MIT News (02/07/13) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Devavrat Shah studies communication networks and statistical inference, blending the two disciplines in a unique way. For example, to solve a communications problem, Shah used a statistical approach to write an algorithm that enables wireless devices to share access to a wireless router with data transmission occurring in rounds. Each device begins with a certain probability of trying to access the router in the next round, and that probability rises for each round in which the device does not attempt to connect, and drops each time it does connect. Initially some collisions occur, but eventually the devices establish a pattern that converges on optimal airtime allocation. To solve statistical problems, Shah uses a network approach to represent problems as graphs, with nodes to indicate data points and edges to show interrelationships. Shah applied this graphical approach to forecasting car buyer preferences based on buying history, and his algorithm was 20 percent more accurate than its counterparts. The method also enables Shah to predict Twitter topic trends with 95-percent accuracy up five hours in advance. He says statistical-inference techniques will have a greater impact in the future as networked devices and data volumes continue to climb.


People in Disaster Areas Are Not Helpless Victims, but Useful Informants
Delft University of Technology (02/01/13)

A decentralized disaster management system would enable people to guide themselves to safety and act as field sensors for sharing information about changing conditions, says the Delft University of Technology's Lucy Gunawan. Her research shows that such a solution would need a good navigation system, and information provided to people must be clustered in a reliable way in a collective map. Gunawan simulated a catastrophe in Delft, and the results showed that her proposed system would be superior to a traditional centralized system in guiding people to safety and providing operators with information on conditions in the disaster area. "These people, who are eyewitnesses and spread throughout the disaster area, form the largest group in the disaster area," she notes. "This means that these people form a great potential resource for collecting first-hand information about the catastrophic event." Gunawan believes her research could provide the foundation for next-generation disaster-management systems.


Ancient Board Game Offers Insight Into Military, Cyber Threats
Penn State Live (02/07/13) Stephanie Koons

Penn State University researchers are using the ancient Chinese game of Go to help students learn new methods for countering future cyber-attacks. "We’re using the game as a training ground to think strategically and tactically," says Penn State's Stan Aungst, who teaches a course that introduces students to thinking visually about attacks, attack patterns, spatial analysis with individual performance evaluation via interactive virtual scenarios, missions, and gaming. "During the course, Go is used as the means for analyzing widely divergent problems, and for developing effective tactics and strategies to address those problems by means of conversion rather than elimination," says Penn State's John Hill. At the end of the course, the students take a test that is used to measure their ability to predict cyber and physical attacks. Professor Todd Bacastow says gaming technologies are supplanting traditional techniques of training in the U.S. intelligence community. "The Defense Intelligence Agency’s VISim [Virtual Intelligence Simulation] is an example of a serious game," Bacastow notes. "VISim’s expressed goal is to prepare the next generation of intelligence professionals who are attuned to video games.”


UT Arlington Software Engineer's Tool Makes for Quicker Tests
UT Arlington News Center (02/07/13) Herb Booth

University of Texas at Arlington Professor Jeff Lei is refining the Advanced Combinatorial Testing System (ACTS), a computer-testing tool designed to reduce the amount of time and cost companies must spend to determine whether a new program works. Lei says the tool tests software enough to be certain of its ability. Combinatorial testing works best on complex systems, and Lei's current work will use ACTS in healthcare information technology. He notes that healthcare information is sensitive and needs to be secure and reliable, and combinatorial testing can provide those assurances. Lei's team will focus on healthcare tests and how medical devices talk to each other. Lei believes his work could significantly lower the cost of healthcare, while improving the quality. "Some systems--like medical devices or defense weapons or disaster communications networks--need to have as high a reliability factor as possible," he says.


U.K. Students Not Lining Up to Study IT
InformationWeek (02/06/13) Gary Flood

Only 3,420 British students, or 0.4 percent, took a computer science A-level--similar to a high school diploma in the United States--in 2011-2012, according to the U.K. Department of Education. The figure is down from a peak of 12,529 in 1998. And only 7 percent--255--of computing A-level students were female. London would like to challenge Silicon Valley in the future, but had only 376 students registered for A-level in computer science, and only 33 students were selected from the six central London boroughs that make up the Greater London Authority to study computing at a pre-college level. "The statistics show the sheer scale of the challenge in front of us to get programming back in schools," warns Ian Livingstone, who chairs the Next Gen Skills campaign. "Whether it's making games, fighting cybercrime, or designing the next jet propulsion engine, computer science is at the heart of everything in the digital world." However, Livingstone says the data illustrates that "English schools are failing to produce students in enough numbers to fill the needs of high tech and creative businesses."


New Modeling Approach Transforms Imaging Technologies
Purdue University News (02/05/13) Emil Venere

Purdue University researchers have developed model-based iterative reconstruction (MBIR), an approach that can improve the performance of technologies using a system of models to extract specific information from huge collections of data and then reconstruct the images like a jigsaw puzzle. "It's more or less how humans solve problems by trial and error, assessing probability and discarding extraneous information," says Purdue professor Charles Bouman. MBIR has been used in a new computed tomography (CT) scanning technology that exposes patients to just 25 percent of the radiation of conventional CT scanners. The technology, called Veo, enables physicians to diagnose patients with high-clarity images and previously unattainable low radiation dose levels. "If you can get diagnostically usable scans at such low dosages this opens up the potential to do large-scale screening for things like lung cancer," Bouman notes. Researchers also used MBIR to improve the quality of images taken with an electron microscope. "For electron microscopy, the principle advantage is higher resolutions, but there is also some advantage in reduction of electron dosage, which can damage the sample," Bouman says.


The Threat of Silence
Slate (02/04/13) Ryan Gallgher

Silent Circle has created a data transfer app called Silent Text that it says will enable even non-technologically skilled users to easily send encrypted files from a smartphone or tablet. Using an advanced peer-to-peer encryption technique developed by several veteran cryptography engineers, users can transmit up to 60MB of encrypted files with a timer that automatically deletes the material from both devices after a designated time period. Silent Circle’s server infrastructure stores little user data, holding IP server logs for only seven days and not keeping metadata. Encrypted files are digitally shredded and stored in a Secure Cloud Broker until sent to the recipient, with the users' devices holding the key to open files. Silent Text has been tested by human rights reporters in Afghanistan, Jordan, and South Sudan to send files without the threat of authorities uncovering material on a seized device. However, law enforcement agencies are likely to be alarmed about Silent Text's ability to abet criminals; the Federal Bureau of Investigation asks all communications providers to create backdoors that permit government surveillance. Silent Circle has a firm policy of noncompliance with government eavesdropping requests and intends to move the company to another jurisdiction if necessary.


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