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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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Volume 4, Issue 298: Friday, January 11, 2002
- "Norwegian Authorities Charge Teen DVD Software Author"
Newsbytes (01/10/02); Bartlett, Michael
Jon Johansen created DeCSS software when he was 15; now the 18-year-old has been indicted by the Norwegian Economic Crime Unit under Norwegian Criminal Code Section 145(2), according to Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attorney Robin Gross. The irony is he was only trying to gain access to his own property. He developed the software so he could view a DVD movie on his own computer, which uses a Linux operating system. The DVD Copy Control Association supports Linux, so Gross says Johansen joined Linux Video, an open source initiative to build a Linux-enabled DVD player. The DeCSS program decrypts DVDs by circumventing the Content Scramble System (CSS). Johansen published DeCSS on equipment owned by his father. In January of last year, the Motion Picture Association of America urged Norwegian authorities to prosecute both Jon and his father. Gross says the EFF believes the public will eventually rally around Johansen until the prosecutors drop the charges.
For more information and articles related to DeCSS, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.
- "Unions a Casualty of Dot-Com Shakeout"
CNet (01/11/02); Gilbert, Alorie
The failure of workers to unionize at Internet companies such as Amazon.com, Webvan, and Etown have seemingly ended most efforts to organize workers in the tech industry. Stanford law professor William Gould, former National Labor Relations Board chairman, says organized labor has shifted its focus back to other, more responsive industries, even though the tech sector's higher wages could boost union coffers. He says unions are inexperienced in dealing with the tech sector. Some quasi-union organizations have been successful in influencing management and providing services unique to technology workers. Alliance@IBM, for example, has succeeded in winning a new pension plan change that benefits 65,000 IBM workers and promises from management to rehire laid-off workers when positions open. Marcus Courtney, co-founder of WashTech, a Washington state-based worker advocacy group supporting 250 dues-paying members, says organized labor in the high-tech industry should not be written off easily. AFL-CIO's Amy Dean says, "These are the new, fledgling models of employee organization. It's decentralized and networked."
- "New Data Encryption Method Throws Away the Keys"
NewsFactor Network (01/09/02); Lyman, Jay
A new encryption method developed by Harvard University professor Michael Rabin and electrical engineer Woody Yang could use environmental data to protect private electronic communications. Although the technique is likely to face opposition from the government, which has been in an long-running effort to keep on top of private encryption used by criminals, Forrester analyst Frank Prince says corporations are pursuing greater secrecy at the same time. The new encryption technique would rely on information in the environment for the keys, such as broadcast Internet, TV, or cellular transmissions. Ideally, the source from which the keys were taken would be so vast that no one would be able to find them, says Prince. Rabin believes the keys could be broadcast as random bits of data via a satellite system. The technique is similar to encryption systems based on "session keys," where the key is discarded after the session has ended. Although the new method offers virtually untraceable encryption keys, the infrastructure costs for deploying could be substantial.
- "A World of Wee Devices Seeks Some Batteries to Match"
New York Times (01/10/02) P. E7; Eisenberg, Anne
A small group of researchers are investigating nuclear power as an energy source for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Dr. James P. Blanchard and Dr. Amit Lal of the University of Wisconsin in Madison are developing prototypes of nuclear microbatteries that use the Nickel-63 radioactive isotope, which produces beta particles as it decays and has a half-life of 102 years, promising long use. One prototype features dissolved Nickel-63 poured into channels on a silicon microbattery, while another uses pyramid indentations as a transmission medium. Meanwhile, Jet Propulsion Laboratory physicist Dr. Jean-Pierre Fleurial is overseeing several research efforts involving alpha particles. Alpha particles have the advantage of scaling down easily, unlike most power source technologies, Dr. Fleurial comments. At the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Kris Pister is considering using his smart dust technology to create nuclear batteries. Smart dust is airborne, mote-sized silicon MEMS that are linked in a wireless network, and Pister says the radioactive isotope tritium could power them.
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- "The Geeks Who Saved Usenet"
Salon.com (01/07/02); Mieszkowski, Katharine
Google users can now search the site for 95 percent of the posts ever made to Usenet, the huge public bulletin board composed of a vast array of newsgroups. Users can use the improved Usenet archives to learn about the early history of online communication. Google's offering features more than 2 million messages dating from 1981 to 1991, most of which are technical conversations or other subject matter thought to be useful to tech experts. Although there were several efforts to archive early Usenet postings, the copies of legendary Unix hacker Henry Spencer appear to be the only messages that still exist. Spencer, who ran a computer facility at the University of Toronto at the time, says he made and kept copies that might be useful to tech experts at the university, but the historical importance of the tapes are now apparent. In addition to the older posts, Google's Usenet archives include millions of posts salvaged from DejaNews, as well as more recent posts archived by Jurgen Christoffel of the German National Research Center for Information Technology and FAQs.org maintainer Kent Landfield. "We all knew there was a value to it, and it was just a matter of how and when it would be used," says Landfield. Google's Usenet archive now has Spencer and others thinking about the history of the Internet that has been lost, such as the Usenet postings from 1979-1980 and the Arpanet mailing lists before that.
- "Charities Say No to Obsolete Crap"
Wired News (01/08/02); Shreve, Jenn
Nonprofit companies are becoming more specific about what kinds of hardware they accept from donors, because obsolete systems often mean repair or disposal costs that can drain them of money. Computers that lack important components, such as key peripherals and a licensed operating system, are useless to charities. "Every dollar we spend on disposing of unusable donations is a dollar we don't have to spend on our career and other support services," explains Goodwill Industries International's Christine Nyirjesy Bragale. Smaller charitable agencies are already struggling to pay for network maintenance and antivirus measures, and ridding themselves of unusable donations only adds to their burden. Third-world countries are also rejecting donated computers if they are not up-to-date. The number of used computers donated to Goodwill has surged from 50,000 per year to 150,000 in three years. Technology companies such as IBM, Compaq, and 3Com have embarked on initiatives to make technology more affordable to nonprofits. Experts such as Compumentor's Tom Dawson also suggest that charities develop technology plans in order to determine if their needs are best served through donations or new purchases.
- "W3C Seeks Clout for Web Rules"
ZDNet (01/07/02); Festa, Paul
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) says the end of last year saw a spate of new Web interoperability recommendations, each of which, if implemented widely, would help to ensure the continuance of an open and independent Web. W3C members are united solely for this purpose, although experts say vigilance is required to correct defections, which could lead to a division on the Web or strong-arming by a powerful Web presence. Microsoft, for example, outraged Web users when it began implementing Web code that required people to use its Internet Explorer browser when viewing its MSN sites. Web Standards Project co-founder Jeffrey Zeldman says the company backed off only because of the public relations outcry, and that such actions pose a serious threat to the W3C's mission. At the same time, Microsoft, a core W3C member, has supported many W3C initiatives, including pervasive use of XML, especially in its emerging .Net framework.
- "Back Doors in AIM Security Tool Irk Pros"
CNet (01/09/02); Lemos, Robert
Upset security researchers from the w00w00 group, which released the AIMFilter software as a patch to AOL's buggy Instant Messenger product, say the code actually contained hidden backdoors that gave the author special privileges. The AIMFilter code has since been cleanly rewritten by w00w00, which has also apologized for the lapse of vigilance. Robbie Saunders, a 16-year-old member of w00w00, created the code that was then posted to SecurityFocus' BugTraq list, a clearinghouse for updates on malicious code. He admitted to writing in the features, which would send click-through data to money-generating sites he owned, give him control over AIM users' access to their instant messaging client, and allowed him to redirect their Web browser to porn sites. However, Saunders explained that he did not expect the code to be so controversial and that he was the only one with the special permissions.
- "'Alien' Message Tests Human Decoders"
New Scientist Online (01/08/02); Knight, Will
Canadian researchers Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas have devised a signal to be broadcast into space later this year, and have forwarded it to scientists worldwide to see if it can be easily decoded. The message consists of a two-dimensional image converted into a binary sequence of ones and zeros. The creators hope to account for signal interference and interruptions by including a certain percentage of meaningless noise in the transmission. "Currently, most resources are focused on signal detection, and not message composition or decoding," says Brian McConnel, who has written a book on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). "I think it is important to research the latter because the worst-case scenario would be positive confirmation of an ET signal that nobody can comprehend." Dutil and Dumas also plan to design a software system capable of automatically decoding extraterrestrial signals sent to Earth. Their message could be sent out next month as a laser transmission by Celestris.
- "Name That Worm--How Computer Viruses Get Their Names"
NewsFactor Network (01/08/02); Lyman, Jay
Naming a computer virus is mainly up to the virus researcher, although there are a few fundamental rules. Symantec Security Response senior director Vincent Weafer says the virus author's name is never used to avoid publicity. "We look to rename it because we don't want to acknowledge them or play into what they're trying to accomplish," adds Network Associates' Vincent Gulotto. Dates are also avoided because the sheer number of trigger dates and the ease of changing them invites confusion, Weafer says. Beyond that, researchers designate viruses based on their unique nature or code, although random factors also come into play: Code Red was named after an eEye Digital Security researcher's favorite soda, for example. Care is taken to choose a virus name that may not cause it to be associated with something unrelated. The Goner worm was named after the references to "leaving" and "I have to go" in its email messages; Weafer says the name "Pentagon" was avoided to remove any association with the terrorist attack. He adds that most antivirus companies have researchers check a database of existing names whenever they designate a new virus.
- "AMD's Aiming for Tech Leadership"
Investor's Business Daily (01/10/02) P. A5; DeTar, James
AMD's HyperTransport bus design has a chance to become the industry standard for high-end computing, servers, and network equipment, displacing the PCI bus, which has been the dominant bus technology since its introduction in 1992. HyperTransport can process more data more quickly than PCI, and has the advantage over competing technologies since it has been available longer. Intel, usually the leader in chip technology, would have to play second fiddle for once, say analysts. Intel's Infiniband, which also has backing from IBM, Sun, Microsoft, and Dell, is just coming out while HyperTransport has been available since the late 1990s. Intel likely will retain control in the personal computer bus market ahead of AMD's HyperTransport with its broadly supported 3GIO bus, its successor to PCI, due early this year. Meanwhile, more and more companies--including some that are also supporting Infiniband, including Sun Microsystems--are aligning with the HyperTransport Technology Consortium, including Cisco, Apple Computer, Nokia, and chipmakers Nvidia and Broadcom. Linley Gwennap of the Linley Group says HyperTransport will be included in many upcoming network products this year.
- "E-Voting: A Load of Old Ballots?"
BBC News Online (01/07/02); Ward, Mark
Internet voting will never be the sole method of carrying out the democratic process, according to some experts. Nevertheless, Robin Cook, leader of the British Commons, has said Britain should be the first country to try e-voting. Several pilots testing responses to Internet voting have been done in smaller referenda around that country, where officials are eager to improve voter turnout. In these tests, voting via post actually proved more appealing than did Internet voting, however. The U.S. National Science Foundation last March published a report slamming the concept of home voting, although it said that Internet kiosks should be tested at polling places. Part of the problem is ensuring the validity of voter registration, already one of the weakest links in the electoral process. Moreover, paper ballots provide physical evidence that is difficult to tamper with, unlike e-votes.
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- "Vaporware 2001: Empty Promises"
Wired News (01/07/02); Manjoo, Farhad
Wired News' Vaporware 2001 list ranks the top 10 most hyped, most hoped-for, but ultimately unrealized products or services for the past year, according to readers' votes. Gaming was a big disappointment for many, with the No. 1 and No. 2 spots going to Duke Nukem Forever and Warcraft III. Although the Mac OS X operating system could not qualify for vaporware, because it actually was released, it still has disappointed many, but especially graphic artists and designers who are awaiting the Adobe Photoshop release for the OS X, which won the No. 3 ranking. Other so-called vapor technologies include 3G wireless networks and services, which are mostly vaporware outside of Japan, and artificial intelligence, which readers noted has not produced any significant or ground-breaking progress as of late--besides Steven Spielberg's movie, A.I.
- "UCITA Changes Fail to Appease"
Computerworld (01/07/02) Vol. 36, No. 2, P. 1; Thibodeau, Patrick
The software vendors group backing the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) has changed some major provisions that had generated the most opposition, such as the remote disabling of applications. UCITA is billed as a way to reduce software acquisition costs, but opponents say software companies have tried to take advantage of it by forcing buyers to fight default contract terms. Opponents succeeded in blocking the bill from passing in any state last year, prompting the proposed new changes. Besides the ban on remote disabling in case of a contract dispute, the revision also allows companies to reverse-engineer purchased software in order to make it interoperable with existing applications. Still, some major groups remain opposed to UCITA because it requires them to prove unconscionability when suing software vendors, an extremely stringent legal standard. The changes also did not reach provisions designed to make "click-wrap" software licenses enforceable.
For information regarding ACM's UCITA activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/IP.
- "Girding for Grids"
eWeek (01/07/02) Vol. 19, No. 1, P. 41; Fixmer, Rob
Grid computing initiatives have been limited to mostly universities and laboratories, but major hardware and software firms are heavily hyping the technology in the belief that corporate demand will soon surge. The technology promises increased efficiency by harnessing the unused processing cycles of millions of computers to carry out research and analysis. IBM, Sun, Platform, and Compaq are participating and funding grid computing efforts such as the Globus Project, and building grids for clients such as the British government and the University of Pennsylvania. Although these are mainly research efforts, Ian Baird of Platform says that the technology is poised to penetrate the corporate space because computational design lends itself so well to grid computing. But although its enormous potential justifies continued development, the heavy promotion may be inflating expectations. Claims such as Baird's that the technology is ready are tempered by IBM's Mike Nelson's assertion that its commercial grid products are still a few years away. Bandwidth and security issues also need to be resolved.
- "Speech Recognition's Next Iteration"
InformationWeek (01/07/02) No. 20, P. 20; McDougall, Paul
IBM Research is working on ways to vastly improve speech recognition technology, including software that can read the many nuances of pronunciation and acoustics as well as contextual interpretation. Current speech recognition systems are limited in that speakers must use precise syntax in order to be understood, and IBM is developing the Super Human Speech Recognition Project to surpass such limitations. Efforts the project will focus on include software that can predict word arrangement. One of the more ambitious programs, according to IBM Research's David Nahamoo, is the creation of a system that can comprehend conversations on multiple levels and respond to open-ended inquiries. The method to build such as system is called domain-specific interpretation. Furthermore, Nahamoo says the approaches IBM Research is developing are being embedded in available software applications. The Super Human Speech Recognition Project is expected to be launched later this year.
- "A Vertical Leap for Microchips"
Scientific American (01/02) Vol. 286, No. 1,; Lee, Thomas H.
Virtually all semiconductors are built horizontally, and increasing computing power relies on smaller and smaller transistors being packed into an expanding chip area. Stanford University's Thomas H. Lee and colleagues have developed a technique to add vertical stacking to this process, thus boosting computer power at less cost. Lee estimates that manufacturing costs could be cut by a factor of 10 with vertical electronics, while the increasing density of three-dimensional microcircuits should keep pace with Moore's Law. Working with computer scientist P. Michael Farmwald, Lee discovered that practical 3D chips could be created using a combination of thin-film transistor processing and chemical-mechanical polishing; the first method lays down polysilicon so that each crystal can hold many memory cells or transistors, while the second flattens out each new layer of material for uniform stacking. Vertical stacking eliminates several design limitations in 2D chip fabrication: Increasing chip area reduces focus at the edges of the photolithographic image, longer component connections affect performance, and the insulating silicon dioxide layer below the control electrode weakens beyond the 3-nm threshold. Lee's company, Matrix Semiconductor, is producing 3D chips that will be available in the first half of 2002; they will be memory cards cheap enough to be used as digital film and audio-recording media. Lee and colleagues have also built more sophisticated 3D chips under laboratory conditions, including static RAM, erasable EPROM memories, and logic gates. 3D chips will also have to deal with trade-offs and restrictions in speed and performance due to factors such as heat dissipation and transistors/polysilicon grain boundaries.
- "Grappling With the New Politics of Software"
Newsweek (12/31/01) Vol. 139, No. 1, P. 96; Levy, Steven
Consumer-oriented software increasingly has agendas invisible to users, either to pass personal information back to their creators or to promote the commercial interests of the distributors. Sometimes the software itself is secret, such as with the FBI's Magic Lantern project that retrieves encryption keys from users' computers, and viruses, which often enter computers under a number of disguises. Even the most popular programs, such as Windows XP or AOL 7.0, carry out their creators' subtle intentions, hindering competitors' software or guiding users toward other products and services from those companies. The recording industry has also ventured into the software arena with its own music distribution programs that hem in users, preventing them from trading digital files like is done over post-Napster file-trading networks. Temple University law professor David Post says software has become less transparent, even as its importance to people increases in the digital world.