Welcome to the September 11, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Government Announces Steps to Restore Confidence on Encryption Standards
The New York Times (09/10/13) Nicole Perlroth
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that it will reopen the public vetting process for the Dual EC DRBG encryption standard, after reports that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had written the standard and could break it. "We want to assure the IT cybersecurity community that the transparent, public process used to rigorously vet our standards is still in place," NIST says. "NIST would not deliberately weaken a cryptographic standard." The announcement comes after recent revelations that NSA has been able to get around much of the encryption that protects massive amounts of information on the Internet. For encryption to be secure, the system must generate secret prime numbers randomly. However, one of the random number generators used in the Dual EC DRBG standard contained a back door for the NSA. The standard was adopted by NIST and by the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 member countries. Many cryptographers previously had expressed reservations about NSA's participation in developing encryption standards, and some say they now have lost confidence in the NIST standards-setting process. "We'll have to re-evaluate that relationship," Johns Hopkins University cryptography researcher Matthew D. Green wrote in a blog post. "Trust has been violated."
Google and edX Create a MOOC Site for the Rest of Us
The Chronicle of Higher Education (09/10/13) Steve Kolowich
Google and edX, a nonprofit joint venture founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are collaborating to create MOOC.org, a spinoff website in which users can sign up for a massive open online course (MOOC) or create one of their own. The site will provide tools and a platform that "will allow any academic institution, business, and individual to create and host online courses," says Google's Dan Clancy. Google also is planning to fold its Course Builder project into MOOC.org, which will utilize Google servers. Similar to other MOOCs, MOOC.org will generate data that describes how class participants are interacting with course materials. Although both Google and edX "will collaborate on research into how students learn and how technology can transform learning and teaching," edX will own the data generated by the courses, notes edX president Anant Agarwal, who describes the website as a "YouTube for courses." Agarwal emphasizes that "EdX has control of how the data is being used and shared, and edX will definitely do the right thing by those data on the site."
Calling for Proposals: Creating Visions for Computing Research
CCC Blog (09/06/13) Ann Drobnis
The Computing Research Association's Computing Community Consortium (CCC) recently issued a call for proposals for workshops that will create exciting visions and agendas for research at the frontiers of computing. "Proposals are encouraged across the full spectrum of theoretical and applied work related to the creation and application of information technologies as well as their use in addressing important scientific or societal challenges," according to the solicitation. Past visioning activities funded by the CCC include Online Education, Health IT, Spatial Computing, and Disaster Management. The solicitation notes that many of the past visioning activities have had a significant impact on the national research agenda. "Successful workshops will articulate new research visions, galvanize community interest in those visions, and mobilize support for those visions from the computing research community, government leaders, and funding agencies," the solicitation says. Budgets for the proposals can range from $10,000 to $200,000, and the proposals should be submitted by Dec. 1, 2013, with start dates no later than September 2014.
Appeals Court Voices Concern About FCC Rule
The Wall Street Journal (09/09/13) Ryan Knutson
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently signaled that it has deep concerns about the legality of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) 2011 rules requiring equal treatment for all traffic on the Internet. A three-judge panel expressed concerns about an antidiscrimination provision in the FCC's rules that prohibits broadband providers from charging content companies for faster, more seamless access to consumers. The judges indicated that the provision illegally regulated Internet providers as "common carriers," a term referring to rules that require phone companies to provide equal access to their networks. They also noted that content companies currently are getting service for free. The FCC's antidiscrimination rule also may run opposed to the fact that Internet providers cannot be regulated as common carriers, according to Judge David Tatel. However, the judges did leave open the possibility that the FCC can prevent Internet providers from blocking Internet traffic for websites that refuse to pay for transmissions. Judges Tatel and Judith Rogers also were skeptical of Verizon's argument that the FCC lacked the jurisdiction to regulate the Internet. They said the FCC could claim authority under a section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which says the FCC "shall encourage" the deployment of broadband through regulations that spur investments in infrastructure.
Machines Made to Know You, by Touch, Voice, Even by Heart
The New York Times (09/10/13) Somini Sengupta
Researchers and technology companies are developing new biometric sensors to help devices verify users' identities. For example, University of Toronto researchers have developed a wristband equipped with a voltmeter to read a heartbeat. The idea behind the wristband and other technologies is to improve the security of mobile devices. "If you connect all these things to the Internet, you need to have good ways--good from a security standpoint and a convenience standpoint--good ways to control access to things," says OneID engineer Jim Fenton. University of California, Berkeley researchers are developing a headset that can read a user's brainwaves to verify their thoughts, which would relieve users of the need to remember and type passwords. "The idea that all the things around us are going to be intelligent is great, but they don't all have screens and keyboards and password managers," says Mozilla's Johnathan Nightingale. Meanwhile, the Fido Alliance, a coalition of hardware and software companies, is developing a set of specifications for password alternatives which are expected to be released at the end of the year. The specifications would be used to develop fingerprint readers and software that recognize a user's face and voice.
National Movement Targets Lack of Women, Minorities in Computing
Government Technology (09/06/13) Colin Wood
A nationwide movement is underway to encourage women and minorities to enter the field of computer science. Although women account for 57 percent of total undergraduate degrees, they represent just 18 percent of all computer and information science undergraduate degrees. This gender disparity begins early, with females representing 56 percent of high school Advanced Placement (AP) test-takers, but only 19 percent of AP Computer Science test-takers. Women and minorities are deterred from computer science by cultural perceptions about technology, says University of Virginia professor Joanne Cohoon, who specializes in sociological issues around computing and gender. She says the stereotype that technology is for white men influences students' attitudes about their own abilities, and creates educational environments in which women and minorities do not feel welcome. Programs such as Tapestry Workshops, Black Girls Code, and iUrban Teen Tech aim to show girls and minorities at an early age that technology is a real option for them. Black Girls Code hosts events across the United States to promote interest among non-white females in computer science. Meanwhile, iUrban Teen Tech brings tech education to black and Latino males through interactive workshops, technology summits, classes, and trips to industry.
This Russian Software Is Taking Over the Internet
Wired News (09/06/13) Robert McMillan
Open source, Web-serving software Nginx is gaining market share even as other Web servers lose ground, and now runs 15 percent of all websites, from startups such as CloudFlare and Parse (bought by Facebook earlier this year) to large Web firms such as Automattic and Netflix. The use of Nginx has almost doubled over the past two years, according to Netcraft. Created by Russian systems administrator Igor Sysoev in 2002, Nginx did not catch on with English-speaking users until 2006, when posts in English began appearing on Nginx's discussion list and Russian speakers began sharing configuration files on blogs and translating documentation. Nginx improves functioning on multi-core and multiprocessor systems, and connects with many more Web clients without overwhelming the computer's memory, says CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince. However, Prince says his firm would not have considered the unfamiliar software if it had not been open source so that the company could examine the code. Today, CloudFlare uses Nginx to serve more than 1 trillion web requests per month. Especially popular among startups, Netcraft notes that Nginx serves more than 40 percent of the 12 million websites that run on Amazon's cloud computing service.
Touch Goes Digital
UCSD News (CA) (09/05/13) Doug Ramsey
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers recently published a paper describing the use of touch in digital systems to record and replay information. The researchers wanted to find a way to record a session of a mother holding a baby, which could later be replayed in an incubator. To electronically record touch contact and pressure, the team used an active-matrix pressure sensor array made of transparent zinc-oxide thin-film transistors. The companion tactile-feedback display used an array of diaphragm actuators made of an acrylic-based dielectric elastomer with an interpenetrating polymer network structure. The researchers note that touch systems are complicated to create due to the wide range of physical sensations that people can feel, including contact, pressure, heat, texture, moisture, pain, and itching. "Touch was largely bypassed by the digital revolution, except for touch-screen displays, because it seemed too difficult to replicate what analog haptic devices--or human touch--can produce," says UCSD professor Deli Wang. "But think about it: being able to reproduce the sense of touch in connection with audio and visual information could create a new communications revolution." He says the ability to digitally communicate touch signals could revolutionize such fields as health and medicine, education, social networking, e-commerce, robotics, gaming, and military applications.
Electronics Advance Moves Closer to a World Beyond Silicon
TG Daily (09/05/13) Thomas Anderson
Oregon State University (OSU) engineers have reported a significant advance in the function of metal-insulator-metal (MIM) diodes. The technology, which consists of a sandwich of two metals, with two insulators in between, to form MIM devices, enables an electron to tunnel through insulators and appear almost instantaneously on the other side. The OSU research shows that the addition of a second insulator can enable step tunneling, in which an electron may tunnel through only one of the insulators instead of both; this would allow precise control of diode asymmetry, non-linearity, and rectification at lower voltages. As a result, device operation could be enhanced by creating an additional asymmetry in the tunnel barrier. "It gives us another way to engineer quantum mechanical tunneling and moves us closer to the real applications that should be possible with this technology," says OSU professor John F. Conley Jr. The researchers say MIM diodes could improve liquid-crystal displays, cellphones, and TVs, and lead to the development of extremely high-speed computers that do not depend on transistors, and energy harvesting of infrared solar energy.
Researchers Developing New Systems to Improve Voice Recognition
UT Dallas News (09/04/13) LaKisha Ladson
University of Texas at Dallas researchers have developed a system that can identify speaking voices even while whispering, speaking through various emotions, or talking with a stuffy nose. The researchers say their system could be used in voice recognition applications such as signing into a bank, getting into locked rooms, logging into a computer, or verifying online purchases. The researchers developed algorithms that more efficiently converted acoustic waveforms into computer processing for pattern analysis. The algorithms also eliminate silences and background noise to allow computers to dedicate more resources to the speech sounds that determine speaker identity traits. The researchers entered their algorithms in the recent National Institute of Standards and Technology Speaker Recognition Evaluation challenge, and ranked among the top three universities in the world. "The goal of the competitions such as these has been to inspire research and start discussions about new and different ways to process speech for the real world, as well as give students the opportunity to work on real-world problems," says University of Texas at Dallas professor John Hansen.
Scientific Supercomputer Network XSEDE Accelerated by Internet2 Upgrade
Science World Report (09/04/13) Mark Hoffman
Researchers using XSEDE's advanced infrastructure, which includes supercomputers, data-storage resources, software, networking, and other computer resources, can generate massive amounts of data. However, if they cannot access resources or share data at efficient rates, the value of the infrastructure diminishes. Fortunately, the U.S. National Science Foundation's network of supercomputing sites now has the bandwidth to keep pace with discovery and innovation in the big data era. "Eliminating XSEDEnet's previous, single backbone, we've improved our overall bandwidth between sites--and, now with Internet2, we're part of a national infrastructure," says XSEDE's Victor Hazelwood. The other major benefit of the new system is access to Internet2's software-defined networking (SDN)-ready infrastructure. XSEDE researchers now will have the potential to manage and allocate percentages of bandwidth, and will be researching provisioning virtual network services with the goal of providing these capabilities for future production services. "We are now set up for future work with researchers and scientists who want to move extreme amounts of data," Hazelwood says. "But it's just a stepping stone, as we work on evaluating SDN, and getting all end users connected at 100 gigabits to the new Internet2 100 GB backbone."
Precomputing Speeds Up Cloth Imaging
Cornell Chronicle (09/04/13) Bill Steele
Conventional computer graphic models can require far too much calculating for practical use, especially during the final rendering step, but Cornell University researchers say they have extended the idea of repetition to make the calculation much simpler and faster. Normally, rendering an image of a patterned silk tablecloth took 404 hours of calculation, according to Cornell professor Kavita Bala. However, with the new method it takes about one-seventh of that time, and with thicker fabric, the calculation was about 10 times faster. The method precomputes the patterns of a set of example blocks representing the various possibilities, which are then converted into a database the computer can consult as it processes each block of the whole image. For each type of block, the precomputation shows how light will travel inside the block and pass through the sides to neighboring blocks. The researchers note the method also can be used on other materials besides cloth, such as finished wood and a coral-like structure. The research was presented at the recent Siggraph 2013 conference.
Mapping the Bitcoin Economy Could Reveal Users' Identities
Technology Review (09/05/13) Tom Simonite
Despite its promise of anonymity, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have shown that an analysis of the public log of Bitcoin digital currency transactions could enable law enforcement to pinpoint user identities. Bitcoin is used for illegal gambling, as well as for illicit purchases of drugs and other items on the online marketplace Silk Road. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security so far this year has seized $5 million from Mt.Gox, the largest exchange between Bitcoins and conventional currencies. "The Bitcoin protocol still has huge potential for anonymity, but the way that people are using it is not achieving anonymity at all," says Sarah Meiklejohn, who led the research project. The analysis hinges on Bitcoin software that maintains a log called the blockchain, recording the unique addresses of individual wallets for every transaction. The UCSD team created maps from the blockchain that could help law enforcement find companies that could identify specific users. The maps could enable an agency, for example, to follow an illegal transaction to a Bitcoin exchange and then subpoena that company. "That would not be hard to do with the current patterns of how people are using things," Meiklejohn says.
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