Welcome to the December 16, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
By Cracking Cellphone Code, NSA Has Capacity for Decoding Private Conversations
The Washington Post (12/13/13) Craig Timberg; Ashkan Soltani
The U.S. National Security Agency is able to crack the A5/1 encryption technology used on most cellphones worldwide, giving the agency the ability to access the majority of private calls and texts, according to an internal document released by The Washington Post. The NSA's global signals collection operation means that its access to private cellphone communications is far broader than military and law enforcement agencies' ability to hack into individual cellphones. Although U.S. law requires NSA to obtain a court order before gathering the content of conversations between Americans, experts warn that if the agency can easily crack encrypted cellphone conversations, other nations' intelligence services can likely do the same. A5/1 encryption's flaws have been noted by security experts, but most providers have not upgraded to newer systems that are more secure. NSA "can process encrypted A5/1" even without an encryption key, according to the internal document, although the scope of the agency's collection and its use of decryption tools remains unclear. Experts say A5/1 has been repeatedly cracked by researchers in demonstration projects for more than a decade. The encryption technology "was designed 30 years ago, and you wouldn't expect a 30-year-old car to have the latest safety mechanisms," says University of California, Berkeley professor David Wagner.
New Grants to Help More Students Pursue STEM Careers
National Law Review (12/16/13) Danielle Carnival; Kumar Garg
President Barack Obama recently announced Youth CareerConnect, a $100-million competition to help American high schools prepare students for college and for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. As part of Youth CareerConnect, up to 40 grants will be awarded to partnerships between local school systems, employers, community colleges, or universities, as well as others that are committed to strengthening the U.S.'s STEM talent pipeline and providing students with industry-relevant education to prepare them for college and careers. Applicants will be judged on their efforts to serve a diverse student population, which will ensure access to preparation and training in STEM fields for girls and minority groups. In addition, the competition builds on the strong focus of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House Council on Women and Girls on increasing female access to STEM fields. The competition will require businesses and higher-education institutions to partner with school districts to develop proposals to improve college and career readiness for more high school students.
Arms Deal Sets Limits on Cyber Technologies
Financial Times (12/15/13) Sam Jones
Western governments have agreed to additions to the Wassenaar Arrangement that will require technology companies to get permission from governments to sell a range of security and surveillance software. The 41 Wassenaar signatories, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and most European Union nations, have agreed to halt the sales of Internet "communications surveillance systems" and "intrusion software," which are the kind of programs used by the U.S. National Security Agency and the UK's GCHQ. As part of the agreement, any software that mines metadata will be restricted, as will programs designed to home in on an individual's Internet activity and data, as well as software designed to inflict damage on computers, networks, or the real-world machinery they control. Government officials are particularly worried that technologies may end up in the hands of terrorist groups or hostile organizations and be used to dismantle western surveillance operations or stage cyberattacks. The proliferation of sensitive cyber technologies is the biggest concern of the U.S. government, says Eric Rosenbach, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy.
Programming Smart Molecules
Harvard University (12/12/13) Caroline Perry
Harvard University researchers have shown that an important class of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms could be implemented using chemical reactions. The researchers note that the machine-learning algorithms, which use a technique called "message passing inference on factor graphs," are a mathematical coupling of ideas from graph theory and probability and already function as critical components of everyday tools. They say that in the long term, these theoretical developments could lead to "smart drugs" that can automatically detect, diagnose, and treat a variety of diseases using a cocktail of chemicals that can perform AI-type reasoning. "This work shows that it is possible to also build intelligent machines at tiny scales, without needing anything that looks like a regular computer," says Harvard professor Ryan P. Adams. The research also could produce methods for analyzing natural biological reaction pathways and regulatory networks as mechanisms that are performing statistical inference. "What makes this project different is that, instead of aiming for general computation, we focused on efficiently translating particular algorithms that have been successful at solving difficult problems in areas like robotics into molecular descriptions," says Harvard professor Nils Napp.
New System Allows for High-Accuracy, Through-Wall, 3D Motion Tracking
MIT News (12/11/13) Abby Abazorius
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing have developed WiTrack, a three-dimensional (3D) motion-tracking technology. Using radio signals to track a person through walls and other obstacles, WiTrack can determine 3D location with an accuracy of within 10 to 20 centimeters. WiTrack builds on the WiVi system that MIT professor and 2013 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient Dina Katabi and a graduate student unveiled earlier in the year, offering improved accuracy and the ability to track two-dimensional and 3D movement using specialized radio waves instead of Wi-Fi signals. WiTrack detects location and movement using specialized radio signals that reflect off a person's body, and has one antenna for transmitting signals and three for receiving. By sending signals between the antennas and using the reflections off a person's body to gauge the distance between the antennas and the user, WiTrack creates a geometric model of the user's location. The system does not require users to carry wireless devices or stand directly in front of a sensing device, and does not use significant computing power. Katabi says the technology could transform gaming, and she notes it also could prove useful in fall detection for elderly people.
New WAVE Display Technology Rises at UC San Diego
UCSD News (CA) (12/11/13) Tiffany Fox
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have developed the Wide-Angle Virtual Environment (WAVE) display, a curved wall array of 35 55-inch LG commercial liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors that end in a crest above the viewer's head and a trough at their feet. "The WAVE was designed as part of the SCOPE project, or Scalable Omnipresent Environment, an effort to build a distributed big data visualization environment that serves as both a microscope and telescope and enables users to explore data from the nano to micro to macro to mega scale, allowing team members to explore a multitude of grand challenges in the sciences and engineering," says UCSD professor Falko Kuester. The WAVE was developed with the goal of creating an environment that completely immerses the user in data. The ability to see data at a resolution of tens of millions of pixels has important research implications for those working in a wide range of fields, says UCSD researcher Tom DeFanti. He notes the WAVE's commercial LCD panels render images more brightly, at a higher resolution and contrast, and in much better alignment than other, similar display systems.
Physical Keys Could Take Away the Pain of Passwords
New Scientist (12/11/13) Hal Hodson
Facebook, Google, and other technology companies are experimenting with physical keys to take the place of passwords. Google is testing YubiKey, a small cryptographic card that plugs into a USB port and mimics a keyboard entering a single-use password into the authentication field, while Facebook employees are already using such cards for two-factor authentication. Some of the keys will rely on their physical structure to make them unclonable, and could be used not just for computer logins but also to authenticate products that are susceptible to counterfeiting. Meanwhile, California Institute of Technology researchers are developing a system that uses light scattered through liquid crystals, which has the advantage of offering much more scope for randomness than a silicon chip. The researchers say the system is very hard to crack, but also difficult to implement because of the impracticality of storing and exchanging huge keys. Another physical authentication key in development is Verayo's Opal, which contains a microchip with tiny imperfections that arise during manufacturing and are unique to it. The device's battery is activated by shaking it, and the user shakes the device again to have it pair with a nearby computer or tablet via Bluetooth. The system reads the Bluetooth signal and, if it matches a predetermined pattern, accepts the user as a trusted party.
Indoor Imagery Shows Mobile Devices the Way
Technology Review (12/10/13) Tom Simonite
University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed a location-fixing method that uses a mobile device's camera to get an indoor location fix that has an accuracy of within one meter. The method uses a photo from a smartphone's camera to determine its location and orientation by matching the photo against a database of panoramic imagery of a building's interior. The researchers created the database using a special backpack that captures imagery indoors as the wearer carries it around. Software uses the image data to produce a map of the building's interior, a stitched-together set of panoramas, and a database of individual images that can be used for location searches. During testing, the researchers say they successfully matched more than 96 percent of images taken by a smartphone's camera against the database of images. Berkeley professor Avideh Zakhor says their approach compares favorably with competing methods of determining location indoors in terms of accuracy and the cost of deployment. "The major advantage of image-based localization is that it works almost everywhere and doesn't require changing the environment in any way," notes Graz University of Technology senior researcher Jonathan Ventura.
Worldwide Collaboration Announces Project AGORA
University of California (12/10/13) Trudy E. Bell
University of California (UC) system researchers have launched the Assembling Galaxies of Resolved Anatomy (AGORA) project, with the goal of understanding and resolving the inconsistencies associated with supercomputer simulations of the formation and evolution of galaxies. "What we are trying to achieve in the AGORA project is to apply the same fundamental rule of reproducibility to computational experiments," says UC Santa Cruz researcher Ji-hoon Kim. A major challenge researchers have faced in this area has been numerically modeling astrophysical processes over the vast range of size scales in the universe. The AGORA researchers have developed a methodology to compare and contrast the results with different versions of participating codes, which numerically handle the physics and the computation in significantly different ways. Comparing a variety of simulation platforms is essential "to verify that the solutions are robust--i.e., that the astrophysical assumptions are responsible for any success, rather than artifacts of particular implementations," the researchers say. For all of the codes, AGORA's working groups will enter common initial conditions, use common astrophysical assumptions, and compare the computational results with a common analysis and visualization tool. The first phase of the project involves modeling a realistic, isolated disk galaxy using various codes and their feedback recipes, varying both the feedback parameters and the resolution.
Cambridge U Deploys U.K.'s Fastest Academic-Based Supercomputer
Campus Technology (12/11/13) Leila Meyer
The University of Cambridge now has the fastest academic supercomputer in the United Kingdom. Cambridge has deployed the supercomputer as part of the computing system development in the Square Kilometer Array Open Architecture Lab, which is building the world's largest radio telescope. The university partnered with Dell, NVIDIA, and Mellanox to build the system, named Wilkes. The supercomputer consists of 128 Dell T620 servers and 256 NVIDIA K20 graphical processing units connected by 256 Mellanox Connect IB cards. Wilkes has a computational performance of 240 teraflops and ranked 166th on the November 2013 Top500 list of supercomputers. The system also has a performance of 3,631 megaflops per watt and ranked second in the November 2013 Green500 list. Wilkes uses Mellanox's FDR InfiniBand solution as the interconnect, and uses NVIDIA RDMA communication acceleration to significantly increase its parallel efficiency. The supercomputer will "enable fundamental advances in many areas of astrophysics and cosmology," says Mellanox's Gilad Shainer.
Internet of Things Devices Will Dwarf Number of PCs, Tablets, and Smartphones
ZDNet (12/13/13) Colin Barker
The Internet of Things (IoT) will grow into a $300-billion industry by 2020, with increasing numbers of devices containing embedded technology to sense internal states or external environments, according to Gartner. From today's 0.9 billion units, the IoT is expected to rise to 26 billion units by 2020, marking nearly a 30-fold increase. Gartner says this trend will drive $1.9 trillion in global value from sales into an increasingly diverse market. Devices with computing capabilities, such as sensors that monitor traffic, have experienced strong growth in recent years, and Gartner predicts that smart devices are poised to overtake PC and phone growth. Advanced medical devices, factory automation sensors, industrial robotics applications, and sensor motes for greater agricultural yield are among the areas expected to undergo rapid growth in coming years. Component costs by 2020 will drop sufficiently to make connectivity a standard feature, even for processors that cost less than $1, enabling nearly any device to be connected, says Gartner's Peter Middleton. "As product designers dream up ways to exploit the inherent connectivity that will be offered in intelligent products, we expect the variety of devices offered to explode," Middleton says.
Hi-Tech Sensors Aim to Help Prevent Obesity
BBC News (12/10/13)
The European Union is funding a project that intends to use high-tech sensors to get young people to adopt healthy lifestyles. The Splendid project is developing a system to record how fast food is eaten and how food is chewed, as well as activity levels during exercise. A mandometer will be used to measure the speed at which food is eaten. A plate of food will be placed on the sensor's scale and it will measure the rate at which the food leaves the plate. Another firm will develop a wearable microphone to measure how food is chewed, as well as a wearable sensor to track heart rate and activity levels during workouts. The data will be fed to algorithms to assess risks for obesity and eating disorders, and the system will eventually be used to chart more personalized goals for modifying individual eating and exercise habits. Splendid plans to test the system on secondary school students in Sweden and the Netherlands. "The idea is that we try to investigate ways to prevent obesity and eating disorders," says Aristotle University of Thessaloniki professor Anastasios Delopoulos, the project's coordinator. "The goal is to modify eating and activity behavior of individuals in a personalized way."
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