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

Please note: In observance of the Columbus Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Oct. 14. Publication will resume Wednesday, Oct. 16.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


India Ordered to Introduce 'Paper Trail' in Electronic Voting Machines
IDG News Service (10/09/13) John Ribeiro

India must introduce a paper backup of votes cast through electronic voting machines (EVMs), according to the Indian Supreme Court. In a ruling that overturned a decision by a lower court, the high court described the paper backup as an "indispensable requirement of free and fair elections." The Supreme Court says the Election Commission could introduce the paper backup in stages during the general elections next year. Although the Election Commission submitted in court that EVMs could not be tampered with, it still planned to introduce a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system. The Election Commission had tested systems in smaller elections. However, political and civil rights groups have pressed for a method of vote verification, especially after some researchers demonstrated vulnerabilities in the EVMs. India first deployed EVMs on a large scale for the general election in 2004. Three years ago, security researcher Hari Prasad and his associates demonstrated weaknesses in the EVMs, after hacking an EVM that had already been used in an election. They replaced the EVM's display board with a look-alike component that could be directed via Bluetooth to steal a percentage of the votes in favor of a chosen candidate.


Several Top Websites Use Device Fingerprinting to Secretly Track Users
KU Leuven (10/10/13)

KU-Leuven researchers have found that 145 of the Internet's top 10,000 websites track users without their knowledge or consent. The sites use hidden scripts to extract a device fingerprint from users' browsers. Device fingerprinting circumvents legal restrictions imposed on the use of cookies and ignores the Do Not Track HTTP header. Device fingerprinting targets either Flash or JavaScript. The researchers found that the 145 websites use Flash-based fingerprinting. The researchers also found that 404 of the top 1 million sites use JavaScript-based fingerprinting, which enables sites to track non-Flash mobile phones and devices. The researchers identified 16 new providers of device fingerprinting, only one of which had been identified in earlier research. However, device fingerprinting can be used for various security-related tasks, including fraud detection, protection against account hijacking, and anti-bot and anti-scraping services. In addition, the technology is being employed for analytics and marketing purposes through fingerprinting scripts concealed in advertising banners and Web widgets. The researchers' FPDetective tool can detect fingerprinting websites by crawling and analyzing sites for suspicious scripts. The researchers will present their findings at the 20th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security this November in Berlin.


An Early Report Card on Massive Open Online Courses
The Wall Street Journal (10/08/13) Geoffrey A. Fowler

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) could help transform education, but face several challenges to realize their full potential. More than 90 percent of students who enroll in a MOOC drop out, as many feel isolated or disengaged. "In large part, the experience is very good, but we see that there are problems, and there are a number of things that can be done that have promise," says edX president Anant Agarwal. "We are not even close to the kinds of conclusions we want." Interpersonal interaction and support help online students to complete courses, and MOOCs are beginning to experiment with different formats to improve the student experience. For example, some instructors record audio comments on assignments instead of writing them to better engage students, or offer motivational messages. Coursera sends students emails to congratulate them on accomplishments and encourage them to reach the next milestone, and Udacity used mentors in trials with San Jose University to coach students and remind them of assignments. In addition, schools are beginning to experiment with "flipped classrooms" that blend online and traditional components, with students watching recorded lectures on their own time and coming into classrooms to work on assignments with the instructor's help.


Carnegie Mellon-Disney Motion Tracking Technology Is Extremely Precise and Inexpensive With Minimal Lag
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (10/07/13) Byron Spice

New motion-tracking technology can eliminate much of the annoying lag that occurs in existing video game systems that use motion tracking. Developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Disney Research Pittsburgh, Lumitrack consists of projectors and sensors. A structured pattern, which looks like a very large barcode, is projected over the area to be tracked. Sensor units, either near the projector or on the person or object being tracked, then can quickly locate movements anywhere in the area. "Lumitrack is substantially faster than these consumer systems, with near real-time response," says Robert Xiao, a Ph.D. student in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. He says Lumitrack is extremely precise, with sub-millimeter accuracy, and its performance is achieved at low cost, as the sensors would require little power and would be inexpensive to assemble in volume. Aside from gaming, the technology is suitable for computer-generated imagery and human-robot interaction, and the components could be integrated into smartphones. The researchers presented their work at ACM's Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology this week in St. Andrews, Scotland.


Your Car Is About to Go Open Source
Computerworld (10/09/13) Lucas Mearian

Automakers are working to standardize a Linux-based operating system for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems that would make cars act more like smartphones. "Today, automakers are having a hard time getting their customers to buy informatics systems because they only can do 10 percent of what a mobile phone can do," says Linux Foundation's Rudi Streif, who leads the Automotive Grade Linux workgroup. "We're leveraging essentially an $11-billion investment already made in Linux by many other companies including IBM and Intel." An open source IVI operating system would create a reusable platform made up of core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces that eliminate the redundant efforts to create separate proprietary systems. IVIs can require up to 40 million lines of programming and are a car's largest software system. One major reason automakers want to adopt open source IVI platforms is because of the cost and complexity of maintaining their own systems over time. "We'd like to be able to use an existing application on the phone and access it through the user interface," says Reaktor general manager Konsta Hansson. After an industry standard open source IVI is created, researchers can begin developing user interfaces for mobile apps.


BBC Plans to Help Get the Nation Coding
BBC News (10/08/13)

The BBC plans to launch an initiative in 2015 that will promote software programming in the United Kingdom. Partnering with the government, educators, and technology companies, the BBC will work to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity and encourage audiences to embrace technology. The program will provide a range of tools that will enable people to gain skills to solve problems, tell stories, and build new businesses in the digital world. The BBC wants to "bring coding into every home, business, and school in the UK," says BBC director general Tony Hall. "We want to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding, programming, and digital technology." The initiative comes at a time when government and technology experts are fearful of a massive skills gap because schools are not teaching key computing skills and interest in the subject matter has fallen. The technology sector will need 1 million more workers over the next 10 years, says Go On UK's Martha Lane Fox. "We've got to help to encourage people to go into that sector."


Printed Electronics: A Multi-Touch Sensor Customizable With Scissors
Saarland University (10/08/13)

Researchers at Saarland University, the Max Planck Institute of Informatics, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a printable multi-touch sensor whose shape and size can be altered. The system is equipped with a new circuit layer designed to help it withstand cuts, damage, and removed areas. The researchers see the new technology being applied to interactive walls used for discussions and brainstorming. "By customizing and pasting on our new sensor you can make every surface interactive, no matter if it is the wristband of a watch, a cloth on a trade fair table, or wallpaper," says Max Planck doctoral candidate Simon Olberding. The researchers say they took their inspiration from nature, examining the human nerve system and fungal root networks to develop two basic layouts. "We assume that printed sensors will be so inexpensive that multi-touch sensing capability will become an inherent part of the material," says Jurgen Steimle, who heads the Embodied Interaction research group at the Cluster of Excellence on Multimodal Computing and Interaction in Saarbrucken. "Users can take it to create interactive applications or just to write on it." The researchers presented their work at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology this week in St. Andrews, Scotland.


Wireless Networks That Follow You Around a Room, Optimize Themselves and Even Talk to Each Other Out Loud
Network World (10/08/13) Jon Gold

Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students recently demonstrated research on software-defined MIMO, machine-generated TCP optimization, and a localized wireless networking technique that works through sound. For example, Swarun Kumar presented OpenRF, a Wi-Fi architecture designed to enable multiple access points to avoid mutual interface and focus signals on active clients. OpenRF can automatically apply its optimal settings across multiple access points, distributing the computational workload across the access points rather than having to rely on a central controller. Kumar says the system can boost TCP throughput by a factor of 1.6. Meanwhile, Keith Winstein presented Remy, an algorithm that enables networks to determine the best ways to configure themselves on their own. "Computer-generated end-to-end algorithms can actually outperform human-generated in-network algorithms, and in addition, human-generated end-to-end algorithms," Winstein says. Peter Iannucci presented Blurt, a system that uses high-frequency sounds to provide localized wireless Internet connections. "Acoustic networks provide great low-leakage properties, since doors and walls are intentionally sound-absorbent,” Iannucci says. "[They] work over moderate distances, using existing devices, and they don't require any setup for ad hoc communications."


Touchscreens Get Curves Thanks to 3D Printed Optics
New Scientist (10/08/13) Paul Marks

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Disney have developed Papillion, a technique that enables designers to create surfaces that can display wraparound interactive imagery. The technique involves placing an image source underneath or inside the device where it cannot be seen; optical fibers then relay the picture to a curved surface. Papillion also involves using a laser from a three-dimensional printer to turn a type of translucent light-sensitive plastic, called a photopolymer, into a bunch of optical fibers. Since the optical fibers work in both directions, touching the surface reflects light back to the hidden display, which means it also can act as a touchscreen. "Printing the fibers lets us define the motion of a character's eyeballs, say, and yet print the display that shows it in just one pass," says Disney's Markus Gross. Technology Will Save Us' Bethany Koby says Papillion could provide a boost to the growing maker movement. "Innovations like this help us imagine a much more interesting world where people can be more creative and create more meaningful, bespoke, and personalized technologies," Koby says. The researchers presented their work at ACM's Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology this week in St. Andrews, Scotland.


Big Data Headed for 'Hellabyte' Metric, Says Andrew McAfee
CIO Journal (10/07/13) Clint Boulton

The explosion of digital data brought on by social software and mobile devices is threatening to overwhelm the ability to manage and categorize it, said Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist for the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in a discussion at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013. "The amount of digital data is overwhelming by any historical standard," McAfee said. He noted that data has gone from being measured in terabytes to petabytes to exabytes, and the last prefix left is yottabyte. Prefixes haven't been updated since the 19th General Conference on Weights and Measures, which took place in 1991. "We are about to run out of metric system," McAfee said. He suggested that hellabyte--short for "hell of a lot of data"--could come after the yottabyte. The theme of the Gartner event was that a digital industrial economy will evolve from a great mesh of cloud, social collaboration, mobile, and information. The emerging Internet of Everything, in which sensors will enable machines to communicate with each other and humans, will compound the data management problem, says Gartner's Peter Sondergaard.


Better Robot Vision
MIT News (10/07/13) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers using the Bingham distribution have developed a robot-vision algorithm they say is 15 percent better than its best competitor at identifying familiar objects in cluttered scenes. The researchers, led by MIT graduate student Jared Glover, are using Bingham distributions to analyze the orientation of ping pong balls in flight, in an attempt to teach robots to play ping pong. Glover also has developed a suite of software tools that accelerate calculations involving Bingham distributions. Glover shows that the rotation probabilities for any given pair of points can be described as a Bingham distribution, which means they can be combined into a single, cumulative Bingham distribution. Glover's research enables the algorithm to explore possible rotations in a principled way, quickly converging on the one that provides the best fit between points. The researchers believe that additional sources of information could improve the algorithm's performance even further. "It's a better representation, so I think once it's understood, this'll just kind of become one of the things that is built in when you're doing the 3D fits," says Magic Leap's Gary Bradski.


Firms, Researchers Seek Better Ways to Detect Evasive Threats
Dark Reading (10/04/13) Robert Lemos

As security professionals have taken to using dynamic analysis, such as sandboxing or using virtual environments to detect malicious activity, many malware makers are building evasive behaviors into their payloads to avoid such measures. Several of the latest versions of popular exploit kits have exhibited these behaviors, which include checking target systems for vulnerable components and only attacking if those components are detected. Other strategies include methods of detecting whether the malware is running in a virtual machine or other analysis environment and going dormant, as well as going into sleep mode for long periods of time or only activating in response to human input. To counter this, security professionals and researchers are turning to automated solutions, such as the Revolver tool presented by University of California, Santa Barbara and University of Birmingham researchers at the recent USENIX security conference. Revolver creates abstract representations of a given program's functions and then uses machine-learning techniques to match the behaviors with known software and malware. The researchers noted that when they patched their system after uncovering an evasion technique, the attackers would return in a few days with a new approach. The researchers say Revolver or similar tools are "necessary to automatically keep track of this behavior and keep false negative detections as low as possible."


'We Should Stop Designing Perfect Circuits'
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (10/02/13)

Circuits that are not fully reliable can reduce energy consumption, size, and costs, while delivering nearly the same results as perfect circuits, says Christian Enz, head of the Integrated Circuits Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Imperfect circuits would not work for all applications, but most circuits are "resilient to a certain statistically small proportion of errors, with only a negligible impact on the final output," Enz says. For example, any impact of an imperfect circuit on the quality of a smartphone screen would be imperceptible to the human eye. Imperfect circuits can be built by looking for underutilized areas of the circuit. "For example, if you have a circuit dedicated to adding numbers and there aren't too many decimals in the numbers being added, we can try to get rid of the part of the circuit that handles decimal places and see what happens," Enz says. Imperfect circuits also can help scientists get around the limits of miniaturization. Although the concept of "good enough" engineering is difficult to "push through in a society that values perfect technology," Enz says it is garnering interest among research scientists and in the corporate world, due to the lack of viable chipmaking alternatives.


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