Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 15, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Researchers Find 25 Countries Using Surveillance Software
New York Times (03/13/13) Nicole Perlroth

As many as 25 governments, some with controversial human rights records, appear to engage in surveillance of citizens using off-the-shelf software, according to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers examined emails to Bahraini activists and found surveillance software capable of turning on microphones and cameras, and capturing computer screen images, Skype chats, and keystrokes. The spyware code contained the word FinSpy, which is the name of spyware sold by Gamma Group for the stated purpose of government criminal investigations. FinSpy is being run off servers in Ethiopia, Serbia, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, and many others. In Ethiopia, FinSpy was concealed in emails targeting political dissidents, with pictures of Ethiopian opposition group Ginbot 7 members that downloaded the spyware when clicked on by the recipient. Surveillance technology sales are mostly unregulated, although the FinSpy report is likely to heighten interest in regulation. “I understand why police would want to use this type of technology, but I’m just not for commercial companies selling them to nondemocratic regimes with questionable human rights records,” says the Citizen Lab's Morgan Marquis-Boire.


Web Browsers Consider Limiting How Much They Track Users
Washington Post (03/14/13) Craig Timberg

Internet browser companies are increasingly implementing privacy controls that could limit the ability of advertisers to track users. The trend is being driven largely by market forces, rather than governmental action. The maker of Firefox, for example, currently is experimenting with new restrictions on the use of cookies. However, some are concerned that Internet companies could turn to more advanced tools that would allow tracking to continue or even expand. "We’re at the risk of an arms race here," says Ohio State University professor Peter Swire. "This could break the Internet. It interferes with existing browsing modules, and it puts bigger pressure on users to take escalating steps to protect their privacy." Firefox's experiments with limiting cookies also intensified debate about the importance of online tracking to the smooth functioning of the Internet, and it has raised alarms in the advertising world. Swire is leading an Obama administration initiative called Do Not Track, which was launched to find ways to give consumers an easy way to block Web tracking. However, the effort has so far failed to find a middle ground between the Internet industry and privacy advocates.


Internet's 'Bad Neighborhoods' Spread Scams and Spam
BBC News (03/15/13)

University of Twente researchers recently conducted a study of more than 42,000 Internet service providers (ISPs) in an attempt to map the Internet's "bad neighborhoods" to help pinpoint sources of malicious email. The researchers found that, in many cases, ISPs specialize in particular threats such as spam and phishing. Some networks can be classed as "bad neighborhoods" because they are places where malicious activity is more likely, according to University of Twente researchers Moreira Moura and Giovane Cesar. Of the 42,201 ISPs studied, about 50 percent of all junk email, phishing attacks, and other malicious messages came from just 20 networks, many of which were concentrated in Brazil, India, and Vietnam. The research is helping to create analysis tools that will do a better job of assessing whether traffic coming from sources never seen before is good or bad. "If security engineers want to reduce the incidence of attacks on the Internet, they should start by tackling networks where attacks are more frequently originated," the researchers say.


Netflix Offers $100,000 for Cloud Computing Improvements
PCMag.com (03/14/13) Stephanie Mlot

Netflix recently launched the Netflix Cloud Prize, an open competition challenging global developers to improve the features, usability, quality, reliability, and security of cloud computing. Netflix will award $100,000 to the winning teams. The competition is divided into 10 categories, and it will be judged by a panel of independent, renowned technology pioneers. "The Netflix Cloud Prize is designed to improve understanding of what it takes to build native applications for the cloud that take full advantage of the opportunities for scalable computing," says Netflix's Neil Hunt. "No doubt many of the key ideas that will take it to the next level have yet to be conceived, explored, and developed." The Netflix Cloud Prize will run through Sept. 15 and the winners will be announced in October. "We're laying railroad tracks for cloud adoption and usage," Hunt says. "The Netflix Cloud Prize is designed to improve understanding of what it takes to build native applications for the cloud that take full advantage of the opportunities for scalable computing."


Predictive Analysis
Bournemouth University (United Kingdom) (03/13/13)

Bournemouth University researchers are developing intelligent software that enables computers to make judgments about the quality and reliability of the data they gather. "We are trying to design adaptive algorithms that learn on the basis of the data they receive," says Bournemouth professor Bogdan Gabrys. The researchers are working with Lufthansa Systems to help the airline accurately forecast demand for different types of plane tickets. Gabrys notes that "communications companies like BT also want to be able to predict whether a customer is going to switch providers as it costs BT between five to eight times more to get a new customer than to retain an existing one." The researchers are developing systems that process information in a similar way to the human brain. "We are trying to build more flexible systems and push the boundaries of how intelligent these systems are," Gabrys says. Nevertheless, he notes that some things are easier to predict than others. "The critical aspect in what we do is knowing the difference between them," Gabrys says.


Users Flock to Japan Student's Firewall-Busting Thesis Project
IDG News Service (03/13/13) Jay Alabaster

The online thesis project of Tsukuba University doctoral student Daiyuu Nobori will enable people to evade government firewalls in countries that restrict Internet use. VPN Gate encourages people to set up virtual private network (VPN) servers and offer free connections to individual users. "Today's VPN software is very complex," Nobori says. "Some VPN services around the world are expensive for people in other parts of the world." VPN Gate maintains a public, real-time list of freely available VPN servers for users to choose from. The service also offers downloadable server software to run the VPN, and a client designed to simplify the process of finding and connecting to one of the free servers for less tech-savvy users. VPN Gate has attracted 77,000 users and has served nearly 4 terabytes of data in less than a week after its launch. The service is based on SoftEther, an open source VPN program Nobori developed.


Google Wants to Replace All Your Passwords With a Ring
Technology Review (03/12/13) Tom Simonite

Google has developed rings designed to be worn on the finger for logging into a computer or an online account. Google's Mayank Upadhyay says using personal hardware for security applications removes the dangers of people reusing passwords or writing them down. Google previously has worked on developing a slim USB key that performs a cryptographic transaction with an online service to prove the key’s validity when it is plugged into a computer. However, Google now is developing a prototype ring that could take the place of the key and is working with other companies to lay the foundation for using the technology to access different services and Web sites. Upadhyay notes that effort is still in its early stages as Google seeks more partners. “The other cool thing, which we’re really pushing for, is that it’s just built into the browser, so that you don’t have to bother installing middleware or anything else,” he says. Google currently offers a more secure log-in service based on two-factor authentication. However, only about one percent of Google’s users have adopted it, and most users consider it too much effort to use, according to Upadhyay.


AT&T Smashes Distance Record for 400Gbps Data Connection
Network World (03/12/13) Jon Gold

AT&T researchers have successfully sent 400Gbps data transmissions more than 7,456 miles with minimal loss, thanks to new materials and a new modulation technique. The approach addresses several key concerns for next-generation networks, notes AT&T researcher Xiang Zhou. "Our method has the unique capability to allow tuning of the modulation spectral efficiency to match the available channel bandwidth and maximize the transmission reach, while maintaining tolerance to fiber nonlinearities and laser phase noise, both of which are major factors limiting performance for high-speed optical systems," Zhou says. The AT&T researchers say they increased the amount of data that can be sent through a given amount of bandwidth, which improves the overall efficiency for existing infrastructures. The distance achieved by the researchers' new method represents an increase of nearly 5,600 miles over previous attempts.


Steganography Is No Laughing Matter
EurekAlert (03/12/13)

University of Maryland Baltimore County computer scientist Abdelrahman Desoky has developed an approach to steganography that uses jokes to make hidden messages less obvious. Unlike strong code, which protects communications with encryption but draws attention to the confidential nature of a message, steganography conceals sensitive information in plain view within the message itself or in a compressed image or music file format. However, large file sizes are a problem with music and image files, and while plain text documents enable smaller files, grammar, syntax, and spelling irregularities can indicate the presence of a concealed message. To reduce issues with grammar and obviousness in plain text steganography, Desoky suggests using jokes to conceal messages. His Automatic Joke Generation Based Steganography Methodology, or Jokestega, uses existing software that composes pun-oriented jokes, such as the Chuck Norris Joke Generator or Jokes2000. Messages are concealed by substituting an alternate answer for the expected one. Jokestega could hide about eight bits of data in a simple joke, and a collection of such jokes could be used to hide a message, Desoky says.


Research on the Use of Robots in the Pediatric Ward of an Oncological Hospital
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (03/11/13)

About 10 European research centers are working on the Multi-Robot Cognitive Systems Operating in Hospitals (MOnarCH) project, which aims to introduce a set of robots that collaborate with medical personnel and relate with patients. Instead of using a single robot, the MOnarCH project will simultaneously use several formats. "In addition, we intend to move forward in the development of robots that can carry on autonomously for long periods of time without the aid of their operators," says Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) professor Miguel Angel Salichs. The UC3M researchers are responsible for programming all of the robots' behaviors that are related to robot-human interaction. "Some of these behaviors consist in establishing a conversation with users, providing information to the staff, or even playing with the children, so the behaviors must be varied and they must allow the robots to adapt to the needs of each individual they are going to deal with," says UC3M's Victor Gonzalez Pacheco. The project also will establish the first framework for the establishment of a series of ethical considerations relating to robotics.


New Study Exposes Gender Bias in Tech Job Listings
Wired News (03/11/13) Klint Finley

A series of five studies by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Duke University indicates there is a subtle gender bias in the way companies word job listings in fields such as engineering and programming, according to a paper recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper suggests that the language in the job listings could discourage many women from applying. The researchers found that job listings for positions in engineering and other male-dominated fields used more masculine words, such as "leader," "competitive," and "dominant," while listings for female-dominated professionals did not contain those words. The researchers also found that the mere presence of masculine words in job listings made women less interested in applying. Another reason for the imbalance is the historical lack of women being trained in the first place. Women also may be more likely to leave male-dominated fields. Harvard University researchers recently found that 52 percent of women in science and technology end up leaving the field and never come back. Analysts say these studies have far-reaching implications as the number of women graduating with science and engineering degrees increases.


Creating Indestructible Self-Healing Circuits
Caltech (03/11/13) Kimm Fesenmaier

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers say they have developed self-healing integrated chips that can automatically repair themselves. During testing, the researchers destroyed various parts of the chips by zapping them with high-powered lasers, and then observed as they developed a work-around in less than a second. We "blasted half the amplifier and vaporized many of its components, such as transistors, and it was able to recover to nearly its ideal performance," says Caltech professor Ali Hajimiri. The chips rely on sensors that monitor temperature, current, voltage, and power. The information from the sensors feeds into a custom application-specific integrated-circuit (ASIC) unit on the chip, a central processor that acts as the brain of the system. "We have designed the system in a general enough way that it finds the optimum state for all of the actuators in any situation without external intervention," says Caltech's Steven Bowers. By demonstrating that the self-healing capability works well in an advanced system, the researchers hope to show that the self-healing approach can be extended to other electronic systems. "Bringing this type of electronic immune system to integrated-circuit chips opens up a world of possibilities," Hajimiri says.


PARC Hard at Work to Solve Problems in Healthcare, Batteries, Traffic
eWeek (03/08/13) Chris Preimesberger

The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) recently demonstrated several projects under development related to healthcare, batteries, and traffic management. PARC is in the early stages of a project that uses non-obtrusive video cameras and image-processing technologies to obtain accurate cardiac pulse measurements. PARC also is developing an ethnography approach that combines systematic data capture and rigorous analysis to uncover and reveal a detailed picture of what patients actually do. The system helps coordinate information between doctors, specialists, pharmacists, and patients. In addition, PARC is developing PromisePoint, a cloud-enabled, role-based system that the researchers say reduces electronic health records training time by as much as 90 percent and increases end-user confidence over traditional training methods. PARC also is developing the Digital Nurse Assistant, an electronic medical record extender that automates many tasks that nurses currently handle by hand. Furthermore, researchers are developing an analytics-based engine that dynamically adjusts parking rates based on demand for spaces. And they are developing Ignite, a teacher support system that makes personalized instruction in the classroom practical. Another PARC project is developing is a co-extrusion printing technique in which dissimilar materials can be deposited side by side at high speed, enhancing both the energy and power densities of batteries.


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