Welcome to the December 2, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Tech Giants Are Countering Government Spying
USA Today (12/01/13) Jon Swartz
Leading technology firms such as Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, mirroring an industry-wide trend, are investing in new security technology to thwart U.S. government surveillance of their computer systems. Gartner predicts that cybersecurity IT budgets will jump to $93 billion in 2017, up from $65 billion this year. "This may be the first time a computer-security problem has had such sustained interest on a national level," says ESET North America's Stephen Cobb. Although many tech executives are reluctant to openly discuss their efforts to counter government spying, they fear consumer backlash from the revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's attempts to monitor their data systems. In fact, new polls show that consumers are responding to the news. For example, a recent Harris poll of about 2,000 people found that four out of five people have changed the privacy settings of their social media accounts in the past few months. Meanwhile, the spying revelations have prompted 19 percent of consumers to do less banking online and 14 percent to cut back on online shopping, according to an ESET-commissioned survey of 362 American adults in September. "It's a fundamental, overnight change in behavior—I have not seen this type of reaction to virus or hacking" in more than 20 years, Cobb says.
When Algorithms Grow Accustomed to Your Face
The New York Times (11/30/13) Anne Eisenberg
Computer software currently exists that can read subtle, millisecond-long facial cues of a person's emotions via frame-by-frame video analysis. For example, Affectiva developed a program from a database of about 1.5 billion recorded emotional reactions, and the software will be offered to mobile software developers beginning in mid-January. Technology forecaster Paul Saffo says face-reading software may eventually be integrated with complementary emotion-recognition programs such as software that performs voice analysis. Advantages of such technology include smoother human-machine interaction, but some are concerned about the ramifications for surveillance and privacy infringement. Meanwhile, Arizona State University professor Winslow Burleson envisions apps responsive to facial cues being broadly employed in medicine, gaming, education, and advertising. "Once we can package this facial analysis in small devices and connect to the cloud, we can provide just-in-time information that will help individuals, moment to moment throughout their lives," Burleson says. Among those who he thinks could benefit from such technologies are autistic people and others who have difficulty reading facial expressions. For example, they could wear Web-linked goggles with cameras, receiving clues about the reactions of people with whom they are talking through an earpiece as the algorithm translates facial expressions.
Group Thinks Anonymity Should Be Baked Into the Internet Itself
Technology Review (11/26/13) David Talbot
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has asked the architects of Tor networking software, which is designed to ensure privacy of Internet browsing, to convert the technology into an Internet standard. The wide adoption of such a standard would facilitate easy inclusion of Tor in a broad range of consumer and business products, and consequently allow far more people to browse the Web without being identified by eavesdroppers. "I think there are benefits that might flow in both directions," says Trinity College's Stephen Farrell. "I think other IETF participants could learn useful things about protocol design from the Tor people, who've faced interesting challenges that aren't often seen in practice. And the Tor people might well get interest and involvement from IETF folks who've got a lot of experience with large-scale systems." When someone installs Tor on their computer and takes other precautions, it provides that system with a directory of relays, or network points, whose owners have volunteered to manage Tor traffic. Tor then guarantees that the user's traffic takes additional steps through the Web. The previous computer address and routing information get encrypted at each stop, so the final destination only sees the address of the most recent relay, and none of the previous ones.
Finding Hidden Circles May Improve Social Network Privacy Settings
Penn State News (11/26/13) Matthew Swayne
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers have created software that could help Internet users improve their privacy settings by predicting how they might assign privacy levels to new content shared with different groups of people in their networks. "We want to help users configure privacy to be better protected," says PSU professor Anna Squicciarini. "However, not all users are interested or motivated to change their privacy settings." The researchers learned that many users bypass the manual set up of privacy restrictions as they add new content and new members to their networks, due to confusion or time restraints. "If users could have privacy settings automatically set when they, for instance, add new members to their circle, or when they add new content, we feel it would improve security, but not affect their experience," Squicciarini says. The researchers surveyed 140 participants about their interests, social networking habits, and privacy attitudes. Respondents also shared how they would establish privacy settings on their social networks under different scenarios. Using data-mining techniques to find groups and connections, the researchers had an average 23-percent error rate in forecasting how people would respond to 75,000 different privacy settings in 15 different scenarios.
President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Policy Highlights Computing at Its November Meeting
CCC Blog (11/26/13) Ann Drobnis
Computing was the major focus of discussion during the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Policy meeting on Nov. 12. An overview of the upcoming letter report on Education Information Technology (EdIT) was the first agenda item, and the addressed issues were opportunities to evolve pedagogical systems and personalize education in today's era of big data, high bandwidth, and software innovation. The first EdIT letter report will focus on higher education, particularly massively open online courses. The release of the cybersecurity report was the second agenda item, and the overall finding was that cybersecurity requires a set of processes that continuously couple information about an evolving threat to defensive reactions and responses. With regard to future architectures, each part of a system must be designed to operate in a hostile environment, and systems will need dynamic, real-time defenses. Privacy was the third item of discussion; Nicole Wong, deputy chief technology officer in the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, addressed the differences between security and privacy.
Sony Files Patent for 'SmartWig'
BBC News (11/27/13)
Sony has filed a patent application for a device called a SmartWig with hopes of becoming a major player in the wearable technology sector. The filing indicates the device could help blind people navigate roads and collect information such as the blood pressure, pulse, and temperature of the wearer, and gaming and virtual reality are other potential uses. Described as an intelligent tool and a fashion item at the same time, the SmartWig is designed to process data and communicate wirelessly with other external devices. Sony places the communication interface and sensors in the wig, which can be worn in addition to natural hair and keeps parts hidden from sight during use. "The system can detect these kinds of data naturally and transmit them to the server computer," Sony says. Sony also says the SmartWig offers significant advantages over other wearable computing devices with regard to user comfort and handling. During a presentation, for example, the wearer could simply raise her eyebrows to move to the next slide.
SC13 Student Cluster Competition Results Are In
HPC Wire (11/25/13) Tiffany Trader
For the second consecutive year, the University of Texas at Austin's Team Longhorn was named the overall winner of the 2013 Student Cluster Competition (SCC) at the recent SC13 Conference in Denver. The SCC transpires in real time over 48 hours while student teams from around the world build a cluster on the exhibit floor and vie to demonstrate the highest sustained performance across a series of scientific tasks without exceeding a set power limit, with the winner being the team with the highest-performing cluster. The Standard Track requires six students and a vendor to design and build a cluster from commercially available elements without going over the 26-amp power limit. Students also were assigned a mystery application, and the core goal is completing the highest number of application runs during the competition. The award of Overall Winner is given to the team that has accrued the most points, while other honors include awards for the highest LINPACK score and Fan Favorite awards. Meanwhile, the first-ever Commodity Cluster Track involved five-student teams allowed to build any kind of cluster, provided they used commercially available hardware bought for less than $2,500 and stayed within a 15-amp power limit.
UAE Researchers Pioneer First Patient-Specific 3D Virtual Birth Simulator
University of East Anglia (11/22/13)
A virtual birthing simulator could enable mothers, doctors, and midwives to see how a birth will likely occur. Computer scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) have developed the software, which uses key anatomical data input--such as the size and shape of the mother's pelvis and the baby's head and torso--to simulate the sequence of movements as a baby descends through the pelvis during labor. The software recreates a geometric model of a baby's skull and body in three dimensions as well as the mother's body and pelvis. Programmers can consider the force from the mother pushing during labor and can even model a virtual midwife's hands that interact with the baby's head. The software could show if a baby's shoulders will get stuck. "We hope that this could help to avoid complicated births altogether by guiding people in the medical profession to advise on caesarean sections where necessary," says UEA's Rudy Lapeer.
NASA Begins Exploring Quantum Computing
Federal Computer Week (11/22/13) Frank Konkel
U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researchers have started running applications on a novel machine, the D-Wave Two, to explore quantum computing. Rupak Biswas with NASA's Exploration Technology Directorate says the agency's initiatives on the D-Wave Two have focused on planning missions, scheduling processes, and re-analyzing portions of data collected by the Kepler telescope. NASA also wants to use D-Wave Two to schedule supercomputing tasks. For example, Biswas says, the machine should be capable of mining an immense number of node combinations to tell engineers precisely which nodes to use for best results. D-Wave Two's calibration complexity means that it takes about a month to boot up, while its 512-qubit Vesuvius processor operates at 20 millikelvin, which is 100 times colder than outer space. Using the machine entails engineers mapping a problem in quadratic unconstrained binary optimization (QUBO), while an even bigger challenge is embedding the QUBO model onto the supercomputer's quantum architecture. Once this is done, D-Wave Two generates answers as probability, and Biswas says the device so far demonstrates quantum tunneling and superposition. NASA will share access to the machine over the next five years as part of an alliance with Google and the Universities Space Research Association.
Will 2-D Tin be the Next Super Material?
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (11/21/13) Andy Freeberg
Researchers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have found that a single layer of tin atoms, known as stanene, could be the world's first material to conduct electricity with 100-percent efficiency at the temperatures that computer chips operate. "Stanene could increase the speed and lower the power needs of future generations of computer chips, if our prediction is confirmed by experiments that are underway in several laboratories around the world," says Stanford professor Shoucheng Zhang. The researchers focused on topological insulators, which are just one atom thick, and whose edges conduct electricity with 100-percent efficiency. "The magic of topological insulators is that by their very nature, they force electrons to move in defined lanes without any speed limit, like the German autobahn," Zhang says. The researchers' calculations indicated that a single layer of tin would be a topological insulator at and above room temperature, and that adding fluorine atoms to the tin would extend its operating range at least 100 degrees Celsius. Zhang says the first application for this stanene-fluorine combination could be in wiring that connects the many sections of a microprocessor.
Gates Foundation Big Data Grants Stress Open Data
InformationWeek (11/22/13) Michael Fitzgerald
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has allocated six $100,000 grants to projects for the purpose of "increasing interoperability of social good data." The grants mark the first time the foundation has made data an element in its Grand Challenges. Among the grants' recipients are NetHope, a U.S. nonprofit that aims to improve information management following a natural disaster, and Development Initiatives Poverty Research, a U.K. nonprofit striving to devise an open-resource toolkit to create interoperable datasets for ending poverty. Also receiving a grant is a University of Michigan research team led by professor H.V. Jagadish, who is developing tools to link incompatible data sets. Jagadish says improving policymakers' decisions is the goal of his project, and he plans to employ data available through the data.gov clearinghouse to develop a prototype to show that his effort can generate meaningful ways to compare public data, and to make queries such as "Does better primary school education lower crime rates?" The Gates Foundation's Victoria Vrana says the overriding goal of the grants is to have foundations, nonprofit leaders, and citizens more informed by data in what they fund and how they do their work by combining people's observations with thorough analysis.
My Quantum Algorithm Won't Break the Internet...Yet
New Scientist (11/25/13) Celeste Biever
In an interview, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Peter Shor discusses his quantum algorithm, which he says could crack online data encryption if a sufficiently powerful quantum computer were developed. Shor says he created the algorithm, which is based on factoring, to test the capabilities of quantum computers. "As Internet cryptosystems rely on the fact that current computers cannot factorize big numbers, I figured a powerful-enough quantum computer could break these systems," Shor says. When he wrote the algorithm in 1994, Shor believed that "quantum computers were completely hypothetical and I didn't really think one could be built." Even now, Shor says the only quantum computers created are "toy ones, so they can't yet come close to factoring numbers large enough to pose a risk." Factorization cannot break quantum cryptography, but Shor says a quantum key distribution network over longer distances would require quantum repeaters every 50 kilometers or so on the fiber-optic network, due to the difficulty of maintaining a quantum state over long distances. This would require significant investment, even if quantum repeaters were inexpensive. He says consumers likely will never own desktop quantum computers, but physicists eventually could have access to them over the Internet.
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