Welcome to the September 6, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
NSA Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web
The New York Times (09/06/13) Nicole Perlroth; Jeff Larson; Scott Shane
The National Security Agency uses a variety of means to overcome encryption technologies, such as supercomputers, technical strategies, court orders, and persuasion, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The documents show that NSA has cracked much of the encryption technology that protects global commerce and banking systems, trade secrets, and medical records, and secures the emails, Web searches, Internet chats, and phone calls of users worldwide. "For the past decade, NSA has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies," according to a 2010 memo from Britain's Government Communications Headquarters. NSA's efforts to decipher secured information are restricted to those cleared for a highly classified program dubbed Bullrun, according to the documents. The extent of NSA's decoding capabilities is known only to a few top analysts from NSA and its counterparts in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The documents show how the agency works with Internet companies to compel them to comply with court orders, use their encryption keys, or alter their software or hardware. The documents also reveal that NSA spends more than $250 million annually on its Sigint Enabling Project, which "engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products' designs" to make them "exploitable."
After Snowden Revelations, China Worries About Cyberdefense, Hackers
The Washington Post (09/04/13) William Wan
Revelations of U.S. National Security Agency surveillance have heightened cybersecurity concerns about China's systems, which have more flaws and offer less protection than those of the United States. In 2011, China was among the top targets of cyberoperations carried out by U.S. intelligence services, according to documents released by The Washington Post. In addition, officials and business leaders are concerned about hackers within China. China’s government and cybersecurity leaders are pushing for a national strategy to guard data in the country’s computer systems. Demand for security products made in China is rising, and many in China support a ban on U.S. hardware in sensitive sectors of government and industry. Although China's military and government benefit from the nation's top cyberdefenses, regular Internet users face rampant hacking, unprotected systems, and a lack of enforcement. "In the U.S., if you're local and you hack someone else, you're going to jail because law enforcement has built up the tools and awareness for that," says Mandiant's Richard Bejtlich. "In China, you get the sense there's a lot of activity but not much institutional ability to deal with it." The problem is intensified by the widespread use of pirated software, which does receive security updates and sometimes includes added vulnerabilities.
Internet Needs 'Cyber Fire Department' to Protect Web Users, Claims Vint Cerf
V3.co.uk (09/04/13) Dan Worth
The Internet needs a cyber fire department to keep risks found on websites and services from spreading, says Google chief Internet evangelist and ACM president Vint Cerf. Speaking at Telefonica's Campus Party event in London, Cerf says a response force would help protect those who do not have the means to do so. "In the Internet environment there are many fires caused by cyberattacks--trojans, malwares, worms, DDoS, and so forth--and many small businesses and individuals are not prepared to respond to that, or don't have the capability," he says. Cerf points out that some issues are mistakes, and that is why a cyber fire department is needed rather than a cyber police department. Cerf also addressed the issue of net neutrality, saying the Internet must remain free and open, although he observes that greater cooperation with the government is needed due to emerging threats. "While there are lots of technology issues with the expanding Internet, the harder problems are around policy as there is a great deal of tension about who is in charge of the Internet and who should control its evolution," Cerf says. New markets such as Africa and the Pacific Islands also will be vital to the future of the Internet, he notes.
Scientists Expand Scale of Digital Snooping Alert
The New York Times (09/04/13) John Markoff
Researchers at Toshiba's European research laboratory in Cambridge, England, have released a paper describing a way to enable a group of users to exchange encryption keys using an experimental technique called quantum key distribution. Although existing quantum-key systems protect only two computer users, the new system expands that to as many as 64 users, making the technology more cost-effective. While the technique does not prevent a breach, it alerts users that an outsider is listening to an optical network transmission. Toshiba's technique is based on the ability to make the extremely short time measurements necessary to capture pulses of quantum light hidden in photon streams transmitted over fiber-optic links, within a network of dozens of users. Quantum cryptography depends on encoding a key in a stream of specially polarized photons, which makes a communication breach immediately apparent. "One of the attractive things about quantum cryptography is that security comes in the form of the laws of nature," says Toshiba Research Europe's Andrew J. Shields. "It should, in principle, be secure forever."
Older Brains Benefit From Video Game
The Wall Street Journal (09/05/13) Evelyn M. Rusli
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) scientists have developed a video game to test whether specifically designed games could help treat neurological disorders. The scientists found that people between the ages of 60 and 85 who played the game, NeuroRacer, showed improved cognitive controls such as multitasking and the ability to sustain attention, and that the effects can be long lasting. The research "is a powerful example of how plastic the older brain is," says Adam Gazzaley, a director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center and co-author of the study. Plasticity refers to the brain's ability to mold itself, even in older age, and the apparent interconnectivity of the brain's cognitive control functions. The scientists spent about a year designing the game, which has players navigate a race car along a winding track, while hitting a button on a controller whenever a green circle appears, in an attempt to challenge their multitasking ability. After training on the game for 12 hours over the course of a month, the older adults outperformed untrained 20-year-olds and the positive effects lasted for at least six months.
Quantum Chip Connected to Internet Is Yours to Command
New Scientist (09/06/13) Jacob Aron
University of Bristol researchers have brought quantum computing to the cloud, enabling anyone with a Web browser to be able to log in and run basic algorithms on a quantum-based Internet system. The Bristol researchers were concerned that limited availability to any type of quantum computer would mean a lack of skilled coders when the expected quantum revolution finally arrives. "A quantum computer can do things faster for you, but someone has to program it, and at the moment there are only a handful of people around the world who would be qualified," says Bristol's Jeremy O'Brien. Aspiring quantum coders can use an online simulator that lets them practice programming, while a tutorial explains the key quantum-mechanical ideas that are central to the device. Once users are experienced enough, they can ask for permission to use the real quantum chip. "If quantum computing does become a practical technology, there will be a relatively small number of quantum computers, which people will access remotely," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Scott Aaronson.
First Trial of Crowdsourced Grading for Computer Science Homework
Technology Review (09/04/13)
Crowdsourcing could help college instructors and teaching assistants make better use of their time. The University of California, Santa Cruz's Luca de Alfaro and Michael Shavlovsky have developed a crowdsourcing tool that puts the task of grading homework assignments in the hands of the students. Students submit homework to de Alfaro and Shavlovsky's website where the tool "CrowdGrader" redistributes the assignments to their peers for assessment. To encourage students to provide fair and consistent feedback on the work of their classmates, de Alfaro and Shavlovsky told testers that peer homework assessment would account for 25 percent of their grade. The researchers said the results were generally positive. A key feature of the tool is the use of an iterative algorithm to calculate the consensus grade for each piece of homework and simultaneously evaluate the quality of the assessment that each student gives by comparing it to the assessment of their peers. Assessment training for students would be a key factor in the success of the tool. "When instructors or teaching assistants are faced with grading a large number of assignments, the feedback they provide on each individual assignment is usually limited," de Alfaro and Shavlovsky say. "With CrowdGrader, students had access to multiple reviews of their homework submissions."
Masculine Open Online Courses
Inside Higher Ed (09/03/13) Carl Straumsheim
Men appear to outnumber women by a significant margin in teaching massive open online courses (MOOCs), although the gap might be closing. Women teach only eight of the 63 courses listed on edX’s website, and eight additional courses are co-taught by men and women, according to an informal Inside Higher Ed tally. At Coursera, women exclusively teach 71 of 432 courses, and two of Udacity's 29 courses are taught by women. However, the gap has closed since this January, when edX offered no courses taught solely by a female faculty member and Coursera offered 35. "This is a remarkable statistic, if it's true, but I do think that it may be pretty early to call the gap 'persistent' for a medium that is in its infancy," says Harvard University professor Elisa New. This fall New is offering two modules of larger courses through edX, and she says "the pipeline is pretty jammed with women" who are experimenting with online learning. The percentage of women teaching online courses grows with each new set of proposals, says edX faculty committee chair Robert Lue, noting that women account for half of the proposals approved for next spring. University of Wisconsin at Madison professor Lisa L. Martin says female professors might avoid larger classes in general due to gender stereotypes.
U.S.-U.K. Supercomputing Centers Join Forces
HPC Wire (09/03/13) Tiffany Trader
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) High Performance Computing Innovation Center (HPCIC) and Britain's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) recently signed a memorandum of understanding commemorating a new partnership that will help industry stakeholders in both countries leverage supercomputing technology to facilitate innovation and improve economic competitiveness. The partnership "provides a vehicle for technical and business development exchanges between the HPCIC and the STFC's Hartree Center [HC]," says LLNL's Donald B. Johnston. HPCIC and HC want to make high-performance computing more accessible to industry and academia, solving customer problems and demonstrating a return on investment. In addition, both facilities rely on the IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer as their primary industrial computing resource. Having a unified architecture will promote the software and application development that is a main part of the collaboration. "The agreement we've signed today will help us to exploit the full potential of high-performance computing for the U.K.--from basic research through R&D to new product design," says STFC's John Womersley.
Rencon: A 'Turing Test for Musical Expression'
Wired.co.uk (09/02/13) Olivia Solon
The Speech, Music and Hearing Center at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology in July hosted the annual Rencon competition, in which computer systems compete in a battle of musical expression dubbed a "Turing test for music." Judges listened to 12 performances played on a grand piano, assessing technical control, musicality, expressive variations, and humanness. All of the performances were computer-generated and played by a laptop connected to a Disklavier, which is an electromechanically controlled grand piano that can operate its keys and pedals without a human player. The goal of Rencon is to produce a system capable of playing music that cannot be differentiated from music played by a human. Two basic approaches exist for developing the software, including the grammatical approach, in which a developer teaches the computer how to read the melody and then sets requirements to adjust tempo and dynamics for creativity. The second approach uses machine learning, training the system on a statistical analysis of a database of previous human musical performances. This year's human-conducted category winner was Virtual, developed by Takeshi Baa from Kiwanis Gawking University and colleagues at Somali University. The system used a thermion as a sensor to record conductor movements, which were then used to control the tempo and dynamics.
Cambridge Mill Road Chalk Graffiti Charts Scientists' Community Data
BBC News (08/30/13)
Computer scientists at University College London (UCL) are engaging the public by mixing technology with artwork. UCL's Lisa Koeman and Vaiva Kalnikaite are collecting community data and presenting it as chalk graffiti on a Cambridge street. They have installed electronic keypads in businesses along Mill Road, and invite shoppers every other day to answer questions about themselves and the local area. For example, a question such as "How are you feeling today?" can be answered by using three smiley face buttons on the keypad. The buttons represent a positive, neutral, and negative response. "With the aggregated data we produce graphs in the different colors of the buttons," Koeman reports. The Visualizing Mill Road project will end shortly, and a summary graph will appear on a railway bridge that divides both ends of the street. "We will compare one community with the other, as residents have a strong identity with the part of the road they are from," Koeman notes.
100 Top Computer Science Students Flock to S.F. for Hacker Olympics
VentureBeat (08/30/13) Rebecca Grant
The second University Hacker Olympics (UHO) is scheduled for Sept. 13-15 in San Francisco. Co-hosted by ReadyForce and SignalFire, the event will bring together 100 of the best college hackers from around the United States. A group of venture capitalists and chief technology officers chose the college hackers after they competed in a series of regional code challenges over the course of the year. The computer science students come from 35 of the U.S.'s top engineering schools. The participating companies choose the ideas for the hackathon in advance, and will pitch them to the college hackers on the first day of the competition. The students get to choose their teams, and they will hack alongside engineers for 24 hours. UHO organizer Ahmed Siddiqui says the real value of the event is the synergy that takes place when putting young, optimistic students together with more experienced engineers. The event also gives startups an opportunity to meet some of the most talented computer science students.
OpenMSI: A Science Gateway to Sort Through Bio-Imaging's Big Datasets
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (08/30/13) Linda Vu
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers have created OpenMSI, a set of computational tools that can process, analyze, and share mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) datasets. OpenMSI was created as part of the Integrated Bioimaging Initiative, an interdisciplinary collaboration between biologists and computational researchers at Berkeley Lab and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). "We've incorporated advanced computational tools into OpenMSI, which allow scientists to easily visualize, analyze, manage, and share MSI data with other researchers, all over the world via the Web," says Berkeley Lab's Oliver Ruebel. OpenMSI uses NERSC's supercomputing resources to process, analyze, store, and serve massive MSI datasets to users via a Web browser. Ruebel says the tool also enables researchers to interact with the MSI datasets over the Internet, in real time, without downloading anything. "Our goal with OpenMSI was to automate the analysis of MSI data and make it scalable, so that researchers would not have to rely on a computationally savvy person to help them open, visualize, and analyze their data," he says. The researchers also developed a tool for retrieving data over the Web, and set it up on NERSC's Science Gateway hardware. In addition, the researchers created an interface that visualizes an MSI sample and its corresponding spectrum, side by side, in a single Web browser.
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