Timely Topics for IT Professionals
About ACM TechNews
ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either HP or ACM.
To send comments, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volume 4, Issue 394: Wednesday, September 4, 2002
- "Hollywood, Tech Piracy Efforts May Curtail Choices"
Los Angeles Times (09/03/02) P. C1; Menn, Joseph; Healey, Jon
Proposals from Microsoft and other companies to introduce technology that would give copyright owners such as movie studios unprecedented control over their content has raised concern among opponents that such measures could erode consumers' fair-use rights. A trio of efforts involving Microsoft are a major focus of the debate: On Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates will introduce Media Player 9, which is designed to produce higher-quality Internet video while at the same time enabling content owners to control the copying and duration of downloaded clips or songs; a Hewlett-Packard home system to be announced today is based on Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, and will limit the copying and playback of recorded Webcasts; and the Palladium design effort facilitates the construction of a hacker-proof "virtual vault" that could be penetrated and modified by trusted third parties so that content holders can control distribution of their material. Of even more concern to privacy and consumer advocates is modifications to Microsoft's small-time licensing agreements that would give the company the right to disable copied content or software on systems whose users downloaded a Media Player security patch in August. Meanwhile, RealNetworks is offering products that promise studios more flexible content management. Although Microsoft's Will Poole says such strategies will benefit consumers by encouraging copyright holders to put more content on the Web, others contend that consumers will reject such services and continue to use pirated material until restrictions are eased. Driving the development of such technology is vendors' hope to stave off legislation that would make the deployment of anti-piracy safeguards in all electronic devices a federal requirement.
Click Here to View Full Article
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "Computer Recycling Bill Sent to Davis"
SiliconValley.com (09/01/02); Levey, Noam
Mere hours before the legislative session ended, the California state legislature passed a landmark bill that would impose a $10 fee on the purchase of new computer monitors and televisions that would be used to fund e-waste recycling efforts. A majority of Silicon Valley legislators supported the bill, sponsored by Sen. Byron Sher (D-San Jose), while the high-tech industry firmly opposed it, claiming that such a measure would prompt customers to buy their equipment from out-of-state suppliers. Fueling the bill's support were worries over the growing environmental threat of toxic materials in discarded electronics, many of which are exported overseas and inadequately disposed of. Meanwhile, local government officials said they could not afford to pay for e-waste recycling programs--indeed, it could cost up to $500 million to implement a cleanup across the state. Supporters have tried to quell the tech industry's complaints by insisting that fees would be imposed on out-of-state vendors, and including provisions that would suspend fees that are deemed illegal. The California legislature is the first such governing body to approve such a proposal. The bill now awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, whose support remains uncertain. Californians Against Waste Foundation director Mark Murray says his organization will lobby for the bill's approval, but tech manufacturers plan to hold their ground and urge the governor not to pass the bill.
- "Attacks Yield New Surveillance Laws"
Associated Press (09/03/02); Hopper, D. Ian
A recent poll of international privacy standards from Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center concludes that governments around the world have passed laws designed to ensure safety from terror attacks by granting authorities more power to monitor citizens' telephone conversations and Internet activity; such moves have riled advocates concerned about their impact on free speech and privacy. Former general counsel for the National Security Agency Stewart Baker notes that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the fears they engendered have accelerated the passage of many proposed surveillance measures, even those that were repeatedly rejected in the past. Among the new regulations and trends the report lists are a European Union directive allowing member nations to keep a record of traffic and location data of everyone using electronic communications devices; growing interest in camera and biometric surveillance, especially in the United States and Great Britain; and government proposals to build profiles of suspected terrorists by integrating existing databases. Other countries that have passed anti-terror legislation include Australia, Canada, Austria, Denmark, Germany, India, France, Singapore, and Sweden. Some laws, however, are designed to protect privacy and personal data: Nations that have passed or are developing such laws include Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States.
- "As Tracking Technologies Improve, We're Ever More Constantly Watched"
Associated Press (09/01/02)
The sophistication of electronic monitoring technologies is increasing, while proposals to connect myriad databases and electronic resources are being researched, and technologists and civil libertarians are worried that such developments will give rise to a "surveillance society" that severely curtails citizens' privacy for the sake of security. Indeed, Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU says that such technology could be so deeply entrenched and trusted that innocent parties could be mistakenly identified as lawbreakers or suspects, simply by "being the wrong person at the wrong place and the wrong time." Thus far, the applications of such technology have been limited: For example, face-recognition camera systems from Identix and Viisage Technology have only been deployed in a few airports, while the development of biometric ID systems for airlines cannot proceed without guidance and standards from the Transportation Security Administration. Technology proponents claim that the threat to civil liberties is greatly exaggerated, and add that neither the capacity nor the impetus exist to keep tabs on everyone's movements. However, work is proceeding on a variety of initiatives, including the incorporation of new authentication methods to perform background checks on federal employees; an electronic toll network that tracks San Francisco motorists' commuting routes; and a traffic monitoring system in Washington, D.C., that could eventually encompass over 1,000 cameras.
- "Hack Attacks on the Rise"
BBC News Online (09/03/02)
Security firm mi2g forecasts that 2002 will be a record year for cyberattacks, and Chairman D.K. Matai warns that more digital assaults could be launched against the United States and its allies in the war against terrorism as the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedy approaches. August alone broke records in terms of the number of hack attacks, with 5,839 reported by mi2g; the total number of attacks for the first eight months of 2002 exceeded the total for all of 2001, while conservative estimates anticipate as many as 45,000 attacks worldwide this year. Other factors besides the war on terror that have provoked pro-Islamic cyberattacks on the United States, Israel, Britain, and India include strained Israeli-Palestinian and Indian-Pakistani relations. Matai further believes that "disgruntled Arab, Islamic fundamentalist, and anti-American groups" are likely to retaliate if the United States pursues a military action against Iraq. Probable targets for future hack attacks include communication and transportation centers and critical infrastructure such as power stations, water, and sewage treatment plants. Mi2g reports that the sophistication of cyberterrorist organizations has increased this year, and that these groups have become particularly interested in economic targets. Matai recommends that critical infrastructure companies should conduct detailed background checks on employees and closely monitor voice and data communications.
- "What's the Fall Fashion in Washington?"
CNet (09/03/02); McCullagh, Declan
Legislators are expected to use the war on terror as leverage in order to increase budgets for dubious programs and extend law enforcement's surveillance powers, writes Declan McCullagh. Politicians often resort to the appropriations process to more smoothly pave the way for their proposals, while some call for votes on bills without disclosing their details to Congress. Furthermore, it is an election year, the White House appears bent on increasing government eavesdropping for the sake of security, and the anti-terror initiative is clearing a path for fiscal extravagance--all of which are putting pressure on Congress. Among the issues to be debated in the fall session are the Bush administration's request for hundreds of millions of dollars so that federal authorities can exchange more data, increase the size of their databases, and monitor communications more closely; and increases in budget and manpower for the FBI's "surveillance capabilities to collect evidence and intelligence." On Tuesday, senators will meet to discuss their version of the bill to create a Department of Homeland Security, which does not require a position of privacy czar, unlike its counterpart in the House. It is likely that support for technology programs of questionable merit will also increase this year, thanks to the recession and the war on terror. Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) will discuss a bill this month that seeks to grant copyright owners the right to hack into peer-to-peer networks.
- "Rapid New Understanding of Superconducting Compound"
New York Times (09/03/02) P. D2; Chang, Kenneth
Researchers have quickly achieved an almost full understanding of magnesium diboride since it was classified as a superconductor a year and a half ago by Dr. Jun Akimitsu of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, and experiments by other researchers have successfully increased the material's current-carrying capacity and boosted its performance in the presence of high magnetic fields. The compound is unique in that its maximum superconducting temperature, minus 389 degrees Fahrenheit, is almost 30 degrees warmer than any other metal; this is because both electrons as well as the electron gaps in the compound's boron atoms collect into pairs at certain temperatures. This week, a pair of research groups will publish the results of their experiments to produce high-quality thin films of magnesium diboride. In the current issue of Nature Materials, Dr. Xiaoxing Xi of Pennsylvania State University details how his team and colleagues at the University of Michigan were able to induce magnesium to adhere to a surface (in their case, a template of flat sapphire crystal) with the addition of high-pressure magnesium vapor in a vacuum chamber. In the latest issue of Applied Physics Letters, University of Wisconsin scientists report that they have fabricated similar films by laying down boron atoms, which are then heated in magnesium vapor at 1,500 degrees. Such films, and the cheapness of their production, could prove critical to the construction of electronic devices such as Josephon junctions, which could find use in very fast switches or magnetic field detectors. It is expected that magnesium diboride will be incorporated into the magnets of magnetic resonance imaging equipment as well as devices that currently incorporate low-temperature superconductors.
- "Instant Message Goes Corporate; 'You Can't Hide'"
Wall Street Journal (09/04/02) P. B1; Bulkeley, William M.
Instant messaging (IM) is taking off as the new killer app for corporate communications. Perhaps even more importantly than allowing people to easily chat with one another, IM allows for "presence." That means IM users, unlike those relying on the phone or email, can see whether the person they want to contact is available at that moment or not. This has the effect of connecting employees with one another and with their managers, and has encouraged more telecommuting. Although IM clients allow users to show themselves as present when they may not actually be at their desks, not responding promptly to a message is considered rude, according to the IM etiquette formed over the last few years. Large corporations use IM to harness their workforce, allowing for colleagues to collaborate more often, even when in different parts of the world. At IBM, employees can tap other employees who have been designated in-house experts in certain subjects--databases or Web design, for example. Overall, IDC says that 20 million business users utilized IM at the end of last year, and that 300 million users will do so by 2005.
- "Hooked on Photonics"
Philadelphia Inquirer (09/02/02) P. D1; Boyd, Robert S.
Photons have been tapped to replace electrons in a number of technological functions, perhaps leading to tremendously beneficial, and yet unforeseen, innovations. Currently, the low-power and super-fast properties of photonics lends itself to the computing and telecommunications fields most readily, although photonics does have other applications, such as in display technology and improved solar energy technology. Unlike electrons, which are a basic component of matter, photons are light particles and the smallest carrier of energy. Telecommunications companies already use them to beam digital ones and zeros across high-speed fiber-optic cables, though the technology is riddled with problems. Currently, fiber-optic signals only carry for about 50 miles and then have to be transferred to electronic signals and back inside router hardware, a process that creates bottlenecks in data-flow. A number of researchers in academia and industry are working to manipulate photons--getting them to stop and turn corners, for example. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Yoel Fink has also created photonic fibers that can transmit photonic signals at greater capacity and without having to re-amplify them. IBM, Agilent, and Lucent Technologies are also developing photonic switches that would act as purely light-based routers.
- "Scientists Advance Search for New Semiconductor Insulators"
NewsFactor Network (08/30/02); Lyman, Jay
Researchers from the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) say they have found a better way to test new porous chip insulator materials. New materials are needed if the industry is to follow the International Technology Semiconductor Road Map, which sets the pace for future semiconductor development. The new technique lets scientists observe more closely the properties of nanoporous insulators, including wall density and the value of dielectric constant. By improving the research and development process, the NIST team expects to hasten the arrival of smaller processing chips that run at faster speeds and consume less power. Better insulators will be used to protect ultrathin metal wires that will link scores of devices on next-generation processors and lead to significant boosts in processor speed. The International Technology Semiconductor Road Map outlines that the dielectric constant of semiconductor insulators must fall below 2.4 within two years. The NIST researchers claim that their new method can detect compositional changes in nanoporous film walls and gauge the wall material's mass density. The more fully we can characterize the pore structure and properties of these nanoporous materials, the more straightforward the search [for an alternative to silicon dioxide] becomes," says NIST's Barry Bauer.
- "Net Traffic Mimics Earthquakes"
Technology Research News (08/28/02); Patch, Kimberly
Japanese university researchers have found that the earth's fault systems and the Internet share many similar characteristics and behaviors, and that the Internet regularly experiences "Internetquakes." Scientists at Tsukuba and Nihon universities say that the network of fault lines in the earth's crust are similar to network nodes and sites on the Internet, where links are not equally distributed, but consolidated at critical junctures. University of Queensland physicist Dion Weatherly explains that when an earthquake occurs in one part of the world, it either helps prevent or stimulate earthquakes elsewhere, a scenario the Japanese scientists have replicated online. The team measured signals relayed to a remote Internet site and back in order to gather data for their study. The signals were emitted each second and passed through 10 different routers to reach the destination computer; changes in Internet traffic were gauged by measuring how long it took a series of signals to make a round trip. Drastic changes in Internet speeds signaled Internetquakes, analogous to earthquakes, said the researchers. They discovered that the Gutenberg-Richter law that applied to earthquakes can also be applied to Internetquakes. The Internet, financial markets, and fault systems all carry similar characteristics, and studying one may lead to discoveries in another, according to the team.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Letter from Ghana"
Technology Review Online (08/30/02); Zachary, G. Pascal
A society of African hackers is growing and prospering in the Ghanaian city of Accra, despite the poor state of Ghana's telecommunications sector, which is hobbled by a lack of expertise and capital. The poverty of Ghana is characterized by a severe lack of essential services, such as electricity, transportation networks, and food, to say nothing of the wide digital divide in the country. Self-taught experts such as Michael Akoto note that computers and computer courses are prohibitively expensive, while the head of a Ghanaian computer networking company, Kwaku Boadu, explains that his nation faces the twofold challenge of building both a 20th-century and 21st-century infrastructure. However, Accra's surprising progress as a regional IT hub and the increasing awareness of its youth's growing tech experience has sparked hope for Ghanaians. For instance, almost 1,000 Ghanaians are employed by U.S. firm ACS to process data collected from American health care forms for providers; furthermore, the New York Times recently reported that people working at Accra's BusyInternet Web cafe were computerizing New York traffic tickets. Two million Ghanaians are estimated to reside outside their native country, and they shall initially benefit from Ghana's improved connectivity. Meanwhile, Ghanaian IT experts such as Eric Osiakosian are being recruited to help their fellow citizens improve their tech savvy and become entrepreneurs. "Information technology makes us more aware of what we are missing, but also makes us more able to stand on our own feet," he proclaims.
- "'Talking' Tax Forms for Blind Developed"
Washington Post (08/30/02) P. A21; Rumbelow, Helen
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has rolled out new technology that allows blind people to use their screen text readers with PDF (Portable Document Format) files. The IRS, along with many other government agencies, commonly posts documents on the Web in PDF format, developed by Adobe Software. Adobe contributed funds to the research, which attaches hidden markers to the PDF file that screen reader programs can then use to make sense of the document and read it aloud to users. Otherwise, screen readers and other assistive technology for the blind treat a PDF file as a single image that cannot be interpreted. Converting PDF files into a readable format requires some specialized work and software from Plexus Scientific. Advocates of the blind laud the new technology, and it helps the IRS meet Section 508 requirements, an equal-access-to-technology law mandated for federal agencies just over one year ago. "It may seem like just a tax form, but we've hit what we believe is a true breakthrough, important because blind people want to be independent," declares the IRS' Michael Moore. By the next tax season, the IRS plans to have 50 of the most commonly used forms converted to an audio format. There are 14 million visually impaired people in the U.S., and PDF files have long been a big problem for blind Web users, says Curtis Chong, the National Federation of the Blind's director of technology.
- "Super Robots Could Owe Their Mobility to a Cockroach's"
Biomimetic robots that take their design cues from simple animals could be stronger, more adaptable, and more effective than current models, and the lowly cockroach shows promise as a template. Such robots can be built via the Shape Deposition Manufacturing (SDM) method, in which layered, heterogeneous materials, also known as Functionally Graded Materials (FGMs), are deposited within the mechanism. SDM has two basic requirements: To define biological components, and from that characterization set quantitative standards for the machines; and to pattern the behavior of SDM material in order to design components that fit within those parameters. To accomplish this, researchers conducted experiments on the hind leg of a Discoid cockroach in order to determine how it reacted to step displacement and sinusoidal displacement. A polyurethane polymer employed in SDM was then tested to see how pliable and sturdy it was, and the results were compared to those of the cockroach leg so that a biomimetic robot counterpart could be conceived and built. Creating robot legs that operate similarly to those of a cockroach required deeper characterization of additional SDM materials. Stanford's SPRAWL robot, which does not need a brain or reflexes to travel over bumpy ground, uses the cockroach leg as a model.
- "Whatever Happened to Virtual Reality?"
NewsFactor Network (08/30/02); Millard, Elizabeth
Experts such as Gartner's Jackie Fenn say that virtual reality technology is a victim of its own hype, and has lost momentum because it promised far more than it could actually deliver. The high cost of the hardware and research and development has discouraged funding. Meanwhile, Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group notes that the most common tool used with virtual reality, the head-mounted display, induces motion sickness in users. He adds that the technology is being applied extensively to the aerospace and military sectors, mainly for equipment testing and personnel training through interaction with virtual environments. Enderle observes that virtual reality appears to have migrated back to originators such as technical universities, and some commercial firms are still developing the technology, although less aggressively than before. Fenn says that not adhering to a principle of "pure" virtual reality could open up the technology to fields such as augmented reality, in which virtual images are superimposed over real objects. Enderle estimates that it could take as long as 15 years before the virtual reality experience is perfected. "The technology is almost there, but getting it into a form we can afford, and live with, will take a while," he explains.
- "Researchers Lure Wi-Fi Hackers"
Internet.com (08/26/02); Sutherland, Ed
In an effort to profile Wi-Fi hackers and their methods, Science Applications International (SAIC) has set up a honeypot--a system that exists as a false target designed to lure intruders. Hackers who penetrate the honeypot are sensed, tracked, and logged by an 802.11 "sniffer." Using the information gleaned from their activities, developers can devise more effective security and intrusion prevention tactics for the 802.11 standard, which has quickly garnered a reputation for its lax security. The SAIC honeypot, which was officially launched two months ago, has not attracted many hackers. SAIC's information security operations chief Rob Lee says this is probably the first honeypot developed to exclusively analyze wireless security. He believes that the system will eventually be used to find out about the tools used by Wi-Fi hackers, as well as identify attack indicators that future wireless security systems could be programmed to detect. The SAIC honeypot is composed of a few open computers, a pair of omnidirectional high-gain antennas, and five Cisco access points. Lee says the honeypot will be used to classify Wi-Fi intrusions as either Internet connection freeloading or a prelude to further assaults.
- "Cells Fuel Innovation"
eWeek (08/26/02) Vol. 16, No. 34, P. 23; Nobel, Carmen
Micro fuel cells, which generate electric power from alcohol or hydrogen gas and are supposed to have 10 times more battery life than lithium-ion batteries, signify a notable advance in power supply technology. MTI Micro Fuel Cells recently introduced a prototype cell driven by methanol: It works without pumps, comes with a replaceable fuel cartridge, and can operate while inverted; it can work in any environment except underwater. The device is about the size of a deck of cards, but MTI President Bill Acker says his company is trying to shrink the product down. By 2005, MTI expects to incorporate fuel cells into cell phones, notebook computers, and other devices. Potential clients see micro fuel cells being particularly desirable in larger machines, such as laptops. Meanwhile, both the automobile and wireless industries are considering the use of hybrid fuel cells, and Robert Hockaday of Manhattan Scientific favors this hybrid strategy over the pure fuel cell approach. However, restrictions could be imposed on where the technology is allowed. "Micro fuel cells are a long, long way off, but if they were to come about, you'd have the problem of someone trying to reload them in an inappropriate place, [such as] an airliner," explains Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. Members of the fuel cell industry will meet in Boston next month to discuss complying with fuel cell transportation regulations, a key issue that revolves around cell casings.
- "See Me, Hear Me..."
Computerworld (08/26/02) Vol. 36, No. 35, P. 34; Machlis, Sharon
The goal of current advancements in computer interface technology is to produce a computer that can intuitively interact with users and run operations without the need for typed instructions. Ted Selker of MIT's Media Lab says such machines will rely on "context-aware" interfaces--for example, one possible application would facilitate the creation of Web pages based on user preferences derived from the movements of the user's eyes and mouse. "The computer will know more about why you're doing what you're doing and what it can do to help you" by 2006, Selker predicts. Often such interfaces involve the enhancement of the keyboard and mouse, rather than their elimination. MIT's Project Oxygen is trying to integrate vision and speech into a system keyed to a person's hand gestures and voice, while David M. Russell of IBM's Almaden Research Center has conceived of a computer with a "Jump" key that executes whatever on-screen command the user is looking at. Meanwhile, Lucent Technologies is researching speech-recognition in order to develop applications that users can access by more natural voice commands. In a recent test, 96 percent of the calls answered by a prototype automated phone operator were handled successfully, according to Bell Labs' Joseph Olive. Speech-recognition technology could also be applied to climate control systems, wireless communication, and small device/large device data access.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Reality Redefined"
Computer Graphics World (08/02) Vol. 25, No. 8, P. 36; Ditlea, Steve
Augmented reality (AR), in which real-world environments are enhanced with computer-generated images, has become more refined over the last three years. The overlay of computer graphics onto the user's point of view is accomplished by a head-mounted display (HMD) that uses left- and right-eye LCD images; until recently, portable AR systems lacked the computing power to sufficiently determine a user's location and viewing orientation in order to correctly line up the graphic elements to the real-world scenes. AR applications can bring benefits to many fields, including medicine, the military, education, and manufacturing. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is running clinical trials of an AR system that combines infrared LEDs, video views, and sonogram imaging so that radiologists can have enhanced vision when performing breast biopsies on patients. AR's potential for training and guidance in the manufacturing sector is being demonstrated at Boeing, where a prototype handheld display that can be used to study unfinished components has been developed. Meanwhile, Columbia University's Mobile Augmented Reality System (MARS) is a hefty, portable package that tracks the wearer's location via GPS, uses gyroscopes and accelerometers to detect head movements, and has an electronic compass to measure head orientation. The Office of Naval Research is funding an effort to produce a version of MARS for prototyping military applications. AR systems were highlighted as emerging technologies at this year's Siggraph: Notable works included a Japanese system that was able to place opaque virtual objects anywhere within a user's field of view, and a convex-mirror and projection screen display system that enables simultaneous space sharing between real and virtual objects.
Click Here to View Full Article