Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the December 20, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Obama Is Urged to Sharply Curb NSA Data Mining
The New York Times (12/18/13) David E. Sanger; Charlie Savage

A five-member presidential advisory panel has advised President Barack Obama to ramp up supervision of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and impose certain restrictions, including changes in how NSA collects the telephone metadata of Americans. The panel's report suggests that such data should be handled by telecommunications companies or a private consortium, and a court order should be necessary each time analysts want to access the data of any individual "for queries and data mining." The panel's experts made 46 recommendations, including calling for more specific approvals from the courts and specific presidential approval for spying on national leaders. The report also calls for NSA to relinquish its ability to insert "back doors" in U.S. hardware or software in order to manipulate computers, or to purchase previously unknown flaws in software that it can use to conduct cyberattacks. Obama, who commissioned the panel's report in August, already has rejected one of the recommendations, which calls for establishing separate leaders for NSA and the Pentagon's U.S. Cyber Command. "We have identified a series of reforms that are designed to safeguard the privacy and dignity of American citizens, and to promote public trust, while also allowing the intelligence community to do what must be done to respond to genuine threats," the report says.


Research Shows How MacBook Webcams Can Spy on Their Users without Warning
Washington Post (12/18/13) Ashkan Soltani; Timothy B. Lee

Johns Hopkins University researchers have provided the first public confirmation that it is possible to activate a laptop's camera without triggering the light indicating that the camera is turned on. The research proves that if a laptop has a built-in camera, it is possible that someone could access it to spy on the user at any time. The researchers studied computers that had a hardware interlock between the camera and the light to ensure that the camera could not turn on without alerting its owner. However, the researchers were able to bypass this security feature because modern laptops are actually several different computers in one package. The computers are designed to prevent software from activating the camera without turning on the light, but the researchers were able to reprogram the chip inside the camera, called a microcontroller, to defeat this feature. Attacks that exploit microcontrollers are becoming more common. "People are starting to think about what happens when you can reprogram each of those," says Twitter security expert Charlie Miller. He also says there is an easy way to thwart this surveillance, noting "the safest thing to do is to put a piece of tape on your camera."


Biologically Inspired: How Neural Networks Are Finally Maturing
IDG News Service (12/17/13) Joab Jackson

Neural networks modeled on the human brain have advanced over the past 20 years and are now making their way into mainstream computing, due to improvements in both hardware and software. Although computers are still mostly incapable of independent thought, they can now process large amounts of data to reach basic conclusions without human assistance. Micron and IBM are developing hardware that can create more advanced neural networks, while software developments also are bringing neural networks to real-world settings. Google, for example, has used neural network algorithms to improve its Google Voice speech recognition application. In neural networking, unlike traditional computing, the computer is primarily responsible for solving a specific problem on its own, notes Rochester Institute of Technology professor Leon Reznik. Advances in silicon have improved neural networking by offering the requisite density to run large clusters of nodes even on a single slice of silicon. Although neural networks are unlikely to replace standard central-processing units (CPUs), they might take on tasks that are too difficult for CPUs alone to handle. "Instead of bringing sensory data to computation, we are bringing computation to sensors," says IBM's Dharmendra Modha. "This is not trying to replace computers, but it is a complementary paradigm to further enhance civilization's capability for automation."


Never Forget a Face
MIT News (12/18/13) Helen Knight

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an algorithm that makes subtle changes to various points on the face to make it more memorable without changing the subject's overall appearance. The researchers say the system could eventually be integrated into a smartphone app to enable users to modify a digital image of their face before uploading them to their social networking pages. In developing the algorithm, the researchers fed the software a database of more than 2,000 images, each of which had been given a memorability score, based on the ability of human volunteers to remember the pictures. The data enabled the software to detect subtle trends in the features of the faces that made them more or less memorable. The researchers then programmed the algorithm to make each face as memorable as possible without changing the identity of the person or altering their facial attributes. When the system modifies a new face, it generates thousands of copies of the original image and analyzes how well each copy meets the algorithm's objectives. The system repeats this process several times until it finds a version that best meets its objectives. The researchers now are studying how to add other attributes to the model, such as modifying faces to appear more intelligent or trustworthy.


San Jose State U. and Udacity Resume Online-Learning Trials
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/18/13) Lawrence Biemiller

San Jose State University has announced plans to resume three of its online courses offered through a partnership with massive open online course (MOOC) provider Udacity next spring, after halting the online experiment for the fall semester. San Jose State embarked on the partnership with Udacity to gauge how well MOOC courses could translate into more traditional online courses offered for university credit. Last spring, San Jose State offered five courses with Udacity, and the school has decided to resume its statistics, programming, and psychology courses while discontinuing two mathematics courses. The courses are available for credit to a restricted number of San Jose State students and others in the California State University system. Students also can sign up through Udacity’s website, but those doing so will earn only Udacity certificates. San Jose State's initial foray into MOOC courses met with mixed success, prompting the school to pause this fall before moving forward with the arrangement.


Study Shows Google's Dominance of Online Advertising
Technology Review (12/17/13) Tom Simonite

Researchers at Stony Brook and Columbia universities recently conducted a study on the mobile Web browsing habits of more than 3 million people. They found that Google's advertising strategies reach at least 80 percent of online publishers and, if only a small fraction of Web users opted out of being shown ads based on their previous online behavior, it would significantly reduce the industry's profits. The researchers used the records of 1.5 billion mobile Web surfing sessions from 2011 to see which sites users visited and which online ad companies provided ads on those pages. "We had access to all of the websites the population of users accessed, publishers they visit, and all the ad aggregators on those publishers," says Stony Brook professor Phillipa Gill. The study enabled the researchers to determine which ad aggregators are most pervasive online, and they found that Google had one or more of its various ad technologies appearing on 80 percent of the publishers visited by people whose data was in the sample. The results suggest that Google should be able to effectively track most Web users. "When the aggregators are able to see the full range of sites you are visiting, they are able to gauge fairly accurately if you are in the market for a car or cellphone," Gill says.


Congress Tells Energy Dept. to Develop 'Exascale' Computers in 10 Years
NextGov.com (12/16/13) Bob Brewin

The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act directs the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a new class of supercomputers capable of a quintillion operations per second. The legislation calls for the Energy Department to develop exascale supercomputers over the next decade, which would be used to model nuclear weapon explosions. The exascale supercomputers also would help support the processing of complex big data sets, including climate modeling and genomics. The first system is slated to go into operation in 2023. The development of exascale supercomputers will require new architectures and algorithms, and research also will need to address the issue of power consumption, says Argonne National Laboratory's Rick Stevens. He notes that today's most powerful computers require several megawatts of power at a cost of about $1 million per megawatt per year. Stevens says Argonne wants to hold power consumption down to 20 megawatts. Exascale supercomputers would operate 1,000 times faster than the high-performance computer developed by China's National University of Defense Technology, which is the current record holder.


First Clinical Study of Computer Security Conducted at Polytechnique Montreal
Polytechnique Montreal (12/16/2013)

Polytechnique Montreal researchers recently conducted a study to assess how a person's behavioral characteristics impacts whether their computer becomes infected by malware. "Although there has been significant research on the technical aspects of computer security, there has been much less on human behavior and how it affects malware and defense measures," says Polytechnique professor Jose M. Fernandez. He notes that even the most security-conscious users are at risk from attacks through unknown vulnerabilities, and even the best security measures can be circumvented as a result of poor user choices. The study aimed to assess the performance of antivirus software and the likelihood that participants' computers would become infected with malware. "Analyzing the data allowed us not only to identify which users were most at risk, based on their characteristics and behavior, but also to measure the effectiveness of various protective measures," says Polytechnique researcher Fanny Lalonde Levesque. The study found that 38 percent of the users' computers were exposed to malware and 20 percent were infected, despite the fact that they were all protected by the same antivirus product. "Further research is needed to understand the causes of this phenomenon, so that we can better educate and raise awareness among users," Fernandez says.


Massachusetts Launches Open Cloud to Spur Big Data R&D
Government Computer News (12/16/13) Rutrell Yasin

The Massachusetts state government is working with local research universities and technology firms to establish the Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC), a cloud framework that will serve as a regional hub for big data research and innovation. The MOC will be a marketplace that enables users to supply, buy, and resell hardware capacity, software, and services. The framework will focus on analyzing large data sets such as those targeted by the Massachusetts Big Data Initiative. State officials say the effort should improve computational infrastructure and turn cloud computing and big data analysis into strong, locally hosted industries. The universities are collaborating with tech firms on the open-cloud technology, which will provide infrastructure as a service, application development, and big data platform services. The cloud platform should eliminate the time and financial obstacles that make it difficult for small companies to enter markets. Participants providing services will be responsible for their operation, determining fees, managing shared cloud services, and collecting charges as well as a small overhead to pay for MOC operations. Meanwhile, several research projects are using the open cloud, including a user interface for the marketplace and a test cloud by Boston University for department-scale user testing.


Apps Make Sense of Social Media 'Noise'
Cornell Chronicle (12/13/13) Sylvia A. Harvey

Cornell University researchers have developed two projects that aim to transform New Yorkers' social media activity into viable data. "Social media has a lot of content, a lot of noise, but for anything important it's hard to access," says Cornell professor Mor Naaman. "Social media tells us what's going on, and we can model it in a way that's easily accessible and usable." CityBeat is an interactive application and news ticker that gathers social media and extracts useful, usable information from it. CityBeat features trending New York City events, and also can serve as the equivalent of a police scanner. ParkBeat aims to help New York's Department of Parks and Recreation effectively send resources to the 29,000 acres it manages in the city. The researchers say the parks department could use the application's aggregated meta- and geo-tagged data on social media to send crews to the proper locations that need service. "Seven or eight years after social media took off, we're still doing a very poor job representing events in social media," Naaman says.


3D Technology From Film Industry Improves Rehabilitation for Stroke Patients
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (12/13/13)

University of Gothenburg researchers have used three-dimensional (3D) technology traditionally used in the film industry to analyze the everyday movements of stroke patients. The researchers found that computerized motion analysis increases the knowledge of how stroke patients can improve their ability to move through rehabilitation. The researchers used motion-capture technology to film everyday movements among about 100 volunteers, which included healthy people and stroke patients. "Our results show that computerized motion analysis could be a complement to a physician's clinical diagnosis and an important tool in diagnosing motion problems," says University of Gothenburg doctoral student Margit Alt Murphy. As part of the study, the volunteers were equipped with reflex balls placed all over their bodies. The motion is documented by high-speed cameras whose infrared light is reflected by the balls and sent back to a computer, which creates a 3D animated image of the test subject. "With 3D animation, we can measure the joint angle, speed and smoothness of the arm motion, as well as which compensating motion patterns the stroke patient is using," Alt Murphy says.


Innovative Technology Addresses Wireless Interference
National Science Foundation (12/16/13) Marlene Cimons

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and 2013 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient Dina Katabi is leading a team that is working to create tools and programs to improve the speed, efficiency, and security of wireless data transmissions. Katabi has received about $4.7 million in U.S. National Science Foundation grants for her wireless interference and data transmission work since 2005. Katabi notes that wireless networks often experience partial data loss and packet rejection when two devices attempt to send packets of information at the same time. "Instead of trying to avoid interference by dividing the spectrum and time among people, we are inventing new technologies that allow people to transmit at the same time in the same part of the spectrum," she says. The team's ZigZag algorithm, for example, restructures the content of competing information packets to greatly lower the chances of needing to retransmit. In addition, the group's MegaMIMO technology coordinates the transmissions of multiple transmitters "so their interference is canceled out in the right manner in order for all of them to transmit at the same time, so everyone can use the spectrum as if the other senders didn't exist," Katabi says. She also has created a system that protects low-power medical devices from unwanted interference using random wireless signals.


IBM Sees Five Tech-Powered Changes in Next Five Years
Agence France-Presse (12/17/13)

Over the next five years, IBM expects classrooms, local shops, doctor's offices, and cities to increasingly benefit from the impact of technology on society. In its annual forecast of five ways technology will change lives in the coming five years, IBM predicts classrooms will be integrated with systems to track and analyze the progress of each student. Smart classrooms will learn the students, and assist teachers in tailoring the curriculum and targeting learning techniques. IBM says software is evolving to think in ways similar to the human brain, and computing power and data in the cloud will enable machines to power such innovations. Retail shops will blend their online and real-world storefronts with Watson-like technologies and augmented reality, and doctors will use patient DNA to tailor treatments. Cities will use social networks, smartphones, sensors, and machine learning to better manage services, and digital guardians will protect people from unusual activity online. The tech changes are "driven by a new era of cognitive systems where machines will learn, reason, and engage with us in a more natural and personalized way," IBM says.


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