Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 6, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Internet Firms Step Up Efforts to Stop Spying
The New York Times (12/05/13) Nicole Perlroth; Vindu Goel

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations of widespread government surveillance, Internet companies are increasingly focusing on how well their data is protected. Microsoft, for example, plans to deploy new encryption features for consumer services as well as its data centers. "The world is quickly being divided into companies that are secure and companies that are not," says Tufts University's Bhaskar Chakravorti. Microsoft general counsel Bradford L. Smith says his company also will launch "transparency centers" where foreign governments can examine the company's code to ensure that Microsoft does not create back doors in its products for surveillance agencies. "We want to ensure that governments use legal process rather than technological brute force to obtain customer data--it's as simple as that," Smith says. The revelations about U.S. government surveillance efforts could make it harder for U.S. technology companies to sell their products overseas. For example, government officials in India are now prohibited from using email services that have U.S.-based servers. Meanwhile, Brazilian politicians are advocating laws to keep Brazilian data in the country, which could compel foreign companies to invest billions to revamp their systems and potentially the entire Internet.


Data Mining Reveals the Secret to Getting Good Answers
Technology Review (12/03/13)

Although question-and-answer websites are hugely popular and can be very helpful, they often have trouble dealing with the massive amount of questions and answers that get submitted daily. To help filter the information, many websites allow users to rank both the questions and the answers, gaining a reputation for themselves as they contribute. Still, it can be difficult to weed out off topic and irrelevant questions and answers. However, State Key Laboratory for Novel Software Technology researchers have developed an algorithm that completes the task. "To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to quantitatively validate the correlation between the question quality and its associated answer quality," says State Key researcher Yuan Yao. The researchers started the study by examining 2 million questions from 800,000 users who produced more than 4 million answers and 7 million comments on the Stack Overflow website. The researchers examined the relationship between well-received questions and answers, and found that they are strongly correlated. The algorithm can predict the quality score of the question and its expected answers, which enables it to find the best and worst questions and answers.


Cyber War Technology to Be Controlled in Same Way as Arms
Financial Times (12/04/13) Sam Jones

Western governmental leaders are expected to finalize revised terms for the Wassenaar Arrangement so that it includes controls on surveillance and hacking software and cryptography. The British government is leading the effort to stop exports in what will be one of the first international attempts to slow down cyber proliferation. If successful, the revised rules under the Wassenaar Arrangement would likely be followed by a European Union-wide shutdown of sales of sensitive cyber technologies. Western intelligence agencies are concerned about sensitive technology falling into enemy hands because it could enable them to understand Western screening systems and their weaknesses. Although cybersecurity is one of the fastest-growing areas of the security industry, individual countries have only been monitoring the sale and use of private-industry technology on an ad-hoc basis. "[Cybersecurity technology] is a lot like the arms race,” says the Chatham House's David Livingstone. "You invest and develop something and then someone on the other side responds. What you want to do is slow down how fast your foe develops equivalent technologies." Western intelligence agencies are particularly concerned about "deep package inspection" technologies, which are used to screen data for hidden surveillance activities, falling into enemy hands.


Carnegie Mellon Scheme Uses Shared Visual Cues to Help People Remember Multiple Passwords
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (12/04/13) Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Jeremiah Blocki and professors Manuel Blum and Anupam Datta have developed a system that enables users to create 100 or more passwords by remembering, and regularly rehearsing, a small number of one-sentence stories. The story sentences become the basis for password fragments that are randomly combined to create unique, strong passwords for multiple accounts. The system ensures that users remember the sentences by pairing them with photos, and making sure that people use or rehearse the sentences frequently. "If you can memorize nine stories, our system can generate distinct passwords for 126 accounts," Blocki says. He notes that by memorizing more stories, users can create even more passwords or can make their passwords even more secure. In addition, by reusing and recombining those stories for each password, people naturally rehearse them more often and thus remember them better. The researchers say the scheme addresses a major usability and security problem posed by the Internet's reliance on passwords. "The most annoying thing about using the system isn't remembering the stories, but the password restrictions of some sites," Blocki says.


Genetic Testing Is Easy to Access Thanks to Computer Scientists
The Conversation (12/04/13) Heather Vincent

Computer scientists have contributed significantly to genetic testing by speeding the process of DNA sequencing. Chemist Frederick Sanger, who died recently at the age of 95, won two Nobel prizes for sequencing proteins and DNA. Proteins were initially of greater interest because changes in proteins can signal many disease-causing mutations. However, DNA sequencing can help determine the protein sequence more rapidly, and this process eventually played a role in the Human Genome Project. Computers began appearing in labs in 1976, enabling computer scientists to collaborate with chemists and biologists on DNA sequence data. When Sanger released his DNA sequencing method in 1977, computer scientists were prepared to quickly complete the first draft of the human genome. In 1980, University of Cambridge geneticist Michael Ashburner wanted to compare his sequence data with Stanford University data, but found the process complex, due in part to varying United Kingdom and U.S. protocols. Shared data repositories were created to make sequenced data freely available over the Internet. Today's computational biologists must handle unprecedented volumes of data, requiring new ways to compress data and make the files smaller and easier to move. In addition, scientists need programs to run more quickly, which new hardware and shortcuts can address.


KTH Researchers Develop Interactive, Social Robot
EE Times Asia (12/02/13)

The Furhat interactive robot head developed by researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology employs a computer-generated, animated face rear-projected on a three-dimensional (3D) mask to serve as a test platform for speech synthesis, speech recognition, eye-tracking, and other interactive technologies. Furhat can conduct conversations with multiple persons, turning its head and looking each person in the eye, while moving its animated lips in sync with its words. The robot is a third-generation spoken dialogue system targeted for commercial use with funding from Swedish government agency Vinnova, says KTH researcher Samer Al Moubayed. "[Furhat] is very simple, it's potentially very cheap to make, and people want to use it in their own research areas," he notes. Furhat uses face-tracking software so it can turn to face multiple people in a conversation, and projection to make direct eye contact. Al Moubayed points out that such technologies are being investigated as a potential therapeutic tool for children with autism and other disorders that affect social interaction. He also sees the machine having potential educational and assisted-living applications as an interactive user interface. The system can be used for telepresence applications in which 3D reproductions of people's faces become the screens that are looked at when conducting a video conference call.


Can You Read My Mind? UC Researchers Engineer the Framework for Helpful Robots With Human Intuition
WCPO.com (OH) (12/04/13) Eileen Fritsch

Robots are expected to play an increasingly large role in daily life over the next 50 years, and the University of Cincinnati (UC) is preparing for this future by advancing the field of human-computer interaction. "In my opinion, UC's human-centered robotics research is unique--not just in the Tri-State area, but across the country," says UC master's student Guarav Mukherjee. "We have a very active collaboration among the engineering, medical, and nursing communities." The UC College of Engineering and Applied Science in November hosted the International Human-Centered Robotics Symposium, at which participants shared ideas for future developments in human-centered robots. The symposium was co-chaired by UC computer science professor Anca Ralescu, who is studying brain-computer interfaces (BCI), and aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics assistant professor Grant Schaffner, who is working on a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton to help people with mobility problems. UC's BCI research could improve the exoskeleton's responsiveness, enabling robotics technology to directly support people. UC researchers are exploring whether a BCI could interpret and predict a person's intentions to move. Ralescu says a UC curriculum in BCI and human-centered robotics, "would put us in a pioneering position in the training of computer scientists and human-centered roboticists."


Experimental Malware Uses Inaudible Sound to Defeat Network Air Gaps
IDG News Service (12/03/13) Lucian Constantin

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing, and Ergonomics have tested the feasibility of creating a covert acoustical mesh network between multiple laptops to exchange data using near-ultrasonic frequencies. The experiments demonstrated that messages can be transmitted using audio signals in the low ultrasonic frequency range of about 20,000 Hz over a maximum distance of 19.7 meters at a rate of 20 bits/second. The researchers placed laptops in direct line of sight to each other and adjusted the volume levels to make the transmission inaudible to observers. They built an acoustical mesh network of five laptops that relayed messages to each other using audio transmissions to show that an attack can jump network air gaps to extract data from computers infected with malware. In order for the system to work, every laptop needs to be in direct line of sight of at least one other laptop that acts as a node in the network. "This message could just contain the recorded keystrokes, but it is also conceivable to include the GUWMANET/GUWAL headers in order to tunnel the protocol over TCP/IP and to extend the covert acoustical mesh network to another covert network at any place in the world," the researchers note.


Fostering Internet Innovation
CORDIS News (12/02/13)

The European Union-funded enabling innovation in the Internet architecture through flexible flow-processing extensions (CHANGE) project is working to accelerate the introduction of core technologies across the network, and also to enable completely new developments, which should result in a better, more efficient Internet. CHANGE researchers want to develop a novel, flow-processing network architecture, making it possible to perform specific processing for some flows but not for others, which would enable developers to overcome the major barriers to the Internet's evolution. A key facet of CHANGE is that the platforms under development can be assembled from standard hardware that is scalable, powerful, and flexible. Open-standard technology will direct traffic flows that need special processing through a set of specific platforms, allowing faster innovation and the deployment of new network technologies. The researchers' overall goal is to develop a broad Internet architecture that combines multiple communicating flow-processing platforms, on which application-specific virtual networks can be built. The researchers say this will accelerate development of innovative products and services on the Internet and lower reduce network costs. They plan to validate the new architecture by testing it with novel applications and services.


MU Researcher Develops Virtual Wall Which Could Stop the Spread of Oil and Could Help Build Invisible Barrier for Oil Spills
MU News Bureau (MO) (12/02/13) Jeff Sossamon

A study from the University of Missouri should benefit researchers who need to control tiny oil droplets on microdevices. A Missouri team has devised a way to form a virtual wall that will confine oily liquids to a certain area. Professor Jae Kwon and colleagues have developed oil-repellent surfaces that help keep oil in predetermined pathways. The technique is based on micro/nanoelectromechanical systems. The researchers demonstrated invisible virtual walls that block the spreading of such low-surface tension liquids at the boundary line with microscopic features already created in the device. "Our newly developed surface helped keep oil, which is normally unmanageable, in predetermined pathways making it controllable," Kwon says. "We feel that oil-repellent surfaces can be widely utilized for many industrial applications, and virtual walls for low-surface tension liquids also have immense potential for many lab-on-a-chip devices, which are crucial to current and future research techniques." Kwon says the transport of oil without spillage could be controlled by oil-repellent virtual walls in the future.


Students Update Classic Animation Technique
Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) (11/29/13)

Much of the repetitive manual work involved in the classic squash and stretch animation technique has been automated by a program developed by computer graphics students at Victoria University. However, the developers note that artists using the program would not lose the ability to customize. They say the software provides an alternative method for intentionally distorting the shape of a character to accentuate its movement. Byron Mallett, a Master's student in the School of Design, focused on the animation and usability aspects of the software, while Richard Roberts, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Engineering and Computer Science, handled programming. "Byron's expertise in animation meant he could provide content to work with, as well as critique the way the software worked for artists," Roberts says. "My knowledge of programming allowed for fast iteration of the tool." Mallett and Roberts presented a paper on their technique at the 28th International Conference on Image and Vision Computing in New Zealand.


Google's C Alternative Gets an Update, but Will Developers Bite?
InfoWorld (12/02/13) Serdar Yegulalp

Google this week released version 1.2 of its Go open source programming language, which the company initially released four years ago as an alternative to C. Go was designed to improve on certain aspects of languages similar to C by leveraging multicore processors and offering modern language features such as dynamic typing. Furthermore, Go compiles rapidly with high performance. Google notes that "no major systems language has emerged in over a decade, but over that time the computing landscape has changed tremendously." Despite Go's reported benefits, its potential popularity among developers remains uncertain. Since Go's initial release in 2009, the language has not caught on significantly outside of Google enclaves. As with all new programming languages, Go faces the challenges of developers questioning language mutability, the risk involved in committing to something new, and the company's commitment to the project. Companies that have used Go in high-profile production contexts offer favorable feedback. Iron.io, for example, used Go to consolidate about 30 servers down to two, while Bitly and Braintree Payment Solutions also were impressed with what they accomplished using Go.


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