Welcome to the August 25, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
For Sale: Systems That Can Secretly Track Where Cellphone Users Go Around the Globe
The Washington Post (08/24/14) Craig Timberg
Privately owned surveillance companies are offering systems capable of tracking the location of any cell phone user to within a few blocks or less to governments around the globe. Marketing materials from companies describe surveillance systems that exploit the lax-to-nonexistent security of the decades-old SS7 telecommunications network used by telecom firms around the world to route calls, text messages, and data. German security researcher Tobias Engel first demonstrated methods of gathering location data from the SS7 network in 2008 and more sophisticated techniques have been developed since then. A more secure replacement for SS7 is in development, but it will likely be a decade or more before it is fully deployed, and although some carriers cooperate with government surveillance efforts, some systems are capable of harvesting location data without carriers' knowledge. The systems are marketed to governments and often paired with other tools such as ISMI catchers, portable devices also known by the trade name StingRay, which act as cellular transmitters and are capable of locating devices, intercepting calls, data, and texts, as well as installing spyware on phones. Although such systems are outlawed within some countries' boundaries, they often are marketed to governments for the purpose of tracking individuals across borders and a lack of international law concerning the technology makes regulating its use extremely difficult.
Computers Reshaping Global Job Market, for Better and Worse
Reuters (08/22/14) Ann Saphir; Lisa Shumaker
Automation and increasingly sophisticated computers have boosted demand for both highly educated and low-skilled workers, while decreasing demand for middle-skilled jobs, according to a paper by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Autor. However, only the highly educated workers are receiving higher wages because as middle-skilled jobs disappear, those workers are more likely to seek lower-skilled jobs, boosting the pool of available labor and putting downward pressure on wages. "While computerization has strongly contributed to employment polarization, we would not generally expect these employment changes to culminate in wage polarization except in tight labor markets," Autor says. He says long-term strategies to utilize advances in computers should rely on investments in human capital to produce skills that are complemented rather than substituted by technology. Still, the paper says computer-driven job polarization has a natural limit, as many jobs require routine tasks that are too intertwined with those needing interpersonal and other human skills to be easily replaced. "I expect that a significant stratum of middle skill, non-college jobs combining specific vocational skills with foundational middle skills--literacy, numeracy, adaptability, problem-solving, and common sense--will persist in coming decades," Autor says. The paper says globalization and technology should benefit the economy in the long term, but could have a disruptive impact in the short term.
For Google's Self-Driving Cars, It's a Bumpy Trip
The Wall Street Journal (08/24/14) Alistair Barr
Earlier this year Google signaled a change in the direction of its research into self-driving vehicles when it premiered a self-driving car that lacked a steering wheel, brake, and acceleration pedals. However, the future of the company's pursuit of fully autonomous vehicles is being put into question by new California rules that forbid such vehicles from driving on public roads. The new rules, which go into effect Sept. 16, require vehicles to have manual steering capabilities so a driver can take "immediate control" of a vehicle if needed. Google says it will comply with the new rules and install temporary steering systems into its self-driving vehicles for tests on public roads, but still plans to pursue tests of fully autonomous vehicles without manual steering capabilities. The new rules are a response to the ongoing debate about the liability implications of self-driving vehicles. As yet, it is unclear who would be held financially responsible if a self-driving vehicle crashed into another. California's new testing rules also require companies involved in the testing of self-driving cars to carry at least $5 million in insurance, which can be prohibitively expensive for smaller companies. Google plans to have ordinary Californians testing self-driving cars on public roads in a couple of years.
Why the Future of Education Is Open
eWeek (08/21/14) Sean Michael Kerner
During a keynote address at the recent LinuxCon conference in Chicago, edX CEO Anant Agarwal noted how the online education platform is using open source and big data to help educate millions of people. He said about 2.7 million students worldwide use edX, and one of its most popular classes is an introduction to Linux course from the Linux Foundation, which has more than 250,000 students. Agarwal said edX's open source approach enables anyone to build their own online education platform and help spread information and knowledge further, and big data can help reveal how students learn. For example, edX has mined its nearly 3 billion records of data that relate to student activity and found the ideal length of time for an educational video is six to nine minutes. Agarwal said edX, founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, promises to improve quality and access to education. "Having edX all free and open source can usher in new improvements for learning technology," he said. Agarwal said another reason for making the edX platform open source is that people who use the platform also make contributions back into the community, improving it for everyone.
Google's Fact-Checking Bots Build Vast Knowledge Bank
New Scientist (08/20/14) Hal Hodson
Google is building Knowledge Vault, a system that autonomously gathers and merges Web information into a single base of facts about the world, as well as the people and objects in it. Google's existing knowledge base, called Knowledge Graph, relies on crowdsourcing to expand its information. However, growth in the people-powered system was stalling, so Google decided to automate the process with an algorithm to automatically pull in information from all over the Web, using machine learning to convert the raw data into usable pieces of knowledge. To date, Knowledge Vault has pulled in 1.6 billion facts, 271 million of which are rated as confident facts to which Google's model ascribes a more than 90-percent chance of being true. In addition to the ability to analyze text on a Web page for facts to feed its knowledge base, Knowledge Vault also can look under the surface of the Web, hunting for hidden sources of data. Other leading technology firms also are building knowledge bases, which are used to enable robots and smartphones to understand what people ask them. "Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and IBM are all building them, and they're tackling these enormous problems that we would never even have thought of trying 10 years ago," says Gartner analyst Tom Austin.
Notre Dame Biometrics Expert Is Helping to Ensure an Honest Election in Somaliland
Notre Dame News (08/19/14) William G. Gilroy
Biometrics expert Kevin Bowyer and his team at the University of Notre Dame have helped the Somaliland government ensure its voter registration list is free from fraud. Government officials requested Bowyer's group to conduct a trial voter registration project using iris recognition that would be completed before Ramadan started on June 28. Voter registration is by law required to be finalized by the end of 2014. "Data acquisition for the field study was conducted over a five-day period in two registration centers: one in the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, and one in Baki, a small town about 60 miles from Hargeisa," Bowyer says. "The data was transferred electronically to our research group at Notre Dame, where we performed the iris recognition analysis, and then reported our results back." The researchers analyzed 1,062 trial voter registration records that had duplicate records intentionally added to the dataset. Each record contained two iris images, for the left and the right eye. The team relied on automatic matching of the set of 2,124 iris images to identify a list of 450 duplicate registrations. The researchers also performed a manual inspection of a small number of results that were ambiguous based on the automatic matching, which identified an additional seven instances of duplicate registrations.
Hacking Traffic Lights With a Laptop Is Easy
Network World (08/20/14)
Security researchers from the University of Michigan with permission from local road authorities have hacked into nearly 100 wirelessly networked traffic lights and were able to change the state of the lights on command. The researchers say it is easy to do, noting someone only needs a laptop and a wireless card operating on the same 5.8-GHz frequency as the wirelessly networked traffic lights. All of the devices studied by the team used the default credentials that came with the devices, which are available on the Internet. In addition, the network was not encrypted and it took only one point of access to hack into the whole system. The researchers speculate a hacker could launch a denial-of-service attack to stop normal light functionality, a subtle attack to cause significant traffic congestion, or choose to control lights for personal gain, such as hitting all green lights along their route. The main components of wirelessly networked traffic lights are sensors that detect cars and inspect infrastructure, which are generally tied to traffic controllers that read the inputs and control light states. The controllers communicate with each other and a central server. The researchers say the lack of security consciousness in the field is a problem, and security should be built into these devices from the start.
Research Paves Way for Cyborg Moth 'Biobots'
NCSU News (08/20/14) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers are developing ways to electronically manipulate the flight muscles of moths, which could eventually lead to remote-controlled "biobots" for use in emergency search and rescue operations, says NCSU professor Alper Bozkurt. "The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network that can identify survivors or public health hazards in the wake of a disaster," he says. Bozkurt worked with Cornell University's Amit Lal to create a way to attach electrodes to a moth during its pupal stage, when the caterpillar is in a cocoon. Bozkurt's team affixed electrodes to the muscle groups responsible for a moth's flight, enabling the team to monitor its electromyographic signals. The moth was linked to a wireless platform suspended in mid-air by electromagnets to give the moth freedom to turn left and right. "By watching how the moth uses its wings to steer while in flight, and matching those movements with their corresponding electromyographic signals, we're getting a much better understanding of how moths maneuver through the air," Bozkurt says. "We're optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight." He says the ultimate goal is creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.
Attackers Can 'Steal' Bandwidth From BitTorrent Seeders, Research Finds
Researchers have found that BitTorrent swarms can be slowed significantly by malicious peers exploiting part of the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol. The exploit enables attackers to keep a permanent connection with seeders, increasing their own download speeds up to 1,000 percent. The popular protocol offers one of the fastest and most efficient ways to share large files over the Internet. The exploit misuses the protocol's choking mechanism of clients that use the Allowed Fast extension. City University London researcher Florian Adamsky and colleagues tested the vulnerability in swarms of various sizes and found three malicious peers can slow download times up to 414.99 percent. The effect becomes worse when the number of attackers exceeds the number of seeders. The impact of the attack further depends on the download clients being employed by the seeders in the swarm. For example, the mainline BitTorrent clients and uTorrent are not susceptible, while Vuze is partly affected "as it allows pieces to be downloaded 64 times and then all further requests are rejected," the researchers note. Adamsky and colleagues suggest a relatively easy fix through an update to the Allowed Fast extension. The team also recommends a new seeding algorithm that is less prone to bandwidth attacks.
Intelligent Navigation System to Personalize Shopping Trips
University of Lincoln (08/19/14) Marie Daniels
Researchers at the University of Lincoln and Aston University are developing an indoor navigation system to help improve people's experiences at supermarkets, hospitals, and parks. The researchers are using a Technology Strategy Board grant to support projects focusing on increasing the accuracy, coverage, and speed of global navigation satellite systems and other non-satellite technologies such as Wi-Fi and iBeacon. University of Lincoln computer scientist Patrick Dickinson says the researchers want to exploit these technologies to develop new and personalized experiences for consumers. "Shoppers will be able to use an intelligent location-sensitive app, which integrates with their shopping trip," Dickinson says. "It will combine their preferences and previous shopping behavior with information about the store they are visiting, to plan their unique experience in real time, alert them to points of interest, resulting in a more productive and enjoyable visit." For example, the researchers say the technology could enable users to devise their quickest and most economical route at the supermarket while alerting them to offers and product updates as they shop.
Can Computers Understand What They See?
Penn State News (08/19/14) Krista Weidner
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers are developing computerized vision systems that can equal, and potentially surpass, the capabilities of human vision. The researchers want to enhance the ability of computers to record imagery and to understand what they are seeing. PSU professor Vijaykrishnan Narayanan says the ultimate goal is to develop computer systems that perceive the world similarly to the way a human being does. The researchers also say their experiments could help computerized systems understand and interact with their surroundings and intelligently analyze complex scenes to create a context of what is happening around them. In addition, future machine-vision systems should be able to process information efficiently, using minimal power. "We'll be working with collaborators from the Sight Loss Support Group of Centre County to better understand the practices and experiences of visual impairment, and to design mockups, prototypes, and eventually applications to support them in novel and appropriate ways," says PSU professor John Carroll. One major aspect of the research effort is to redesign the processors used in smart visual systems. "We want to reduce the cost of fetching instructions, which will increase efficiency," Carroll says.
Meet the 'Swarmies'--Robotics Answer to Bugs
NASA News (08/18/14) Steven Siceloff
U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researchers are developing software that instructs small, wheeled robots to work together in searching an area for a particular material. During testing, the robots were programmed to search for barcoded pieces of paper. However, future robots could use the software to work on an asteroid or Mars, searching for water and ice or other resources that can be turned into rocket fuel or breathable air for astronauts. The researchers built four robots called "swarmies," each of which is equipped with a webcam, a Wi-Fi antenna, and a global-positioning system device. The robots are programmed to work on their own to survey an area, and then call the others over when one of them finds something valuable, similar to the way an ant colony gathers around a food source to split up the task of gathering the food and taking it back to the nest. The researchers also are using a computer simulator to test the network with many more robots simultaneously without having to build the physical drones. "Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task," says NASA researcher Kurt Leucht.
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