Association for Computing Machinery
Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


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Volume 5, Issue 541: Friday, September 5, 2003

  • "Cybersecurity Legislation May Go to Congress"
    IDG News Service (09/04/03); Gross, Grant

    Among the legislation on Congress' slate is a cybersecurity proposal from Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, that calls for companies to fill out a cybersecurity checklist in their filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. Such a requirement would add accountability, but Robert Housman of Bracewell & Patterson says investors and executives could get jumpy if companies are also required to disclose attempted cyber-intrusions. Daniel Burton of Entrust says such a mandate would make more top-level corporate executives aware of cybersecurity issues while not imposing specific cybersecurity standards that may be unsuitable for certain businesses. Bob Dix, staff director of Putnam's subcommittee, says his group anticipates a certain amount of resistance if the bill is introduced. But Housman says the increasing frequency of cyberattacks and the threat of more malevolent worms and viruses are putting pressure on Congress to pass some form of cybersecurity legislation. "On top of all that, there is a perception, right or wrong, among a lot of the regulators and congressional members I've talked to that not enough is happening on the cyber front, that companies still remain vulnerable," the lawyer notes. Housman adds that the industry may look more favorably upon a bill that advocates incentives or cybersecurity reporting requirements, rather than a checklist.
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  • "Computer Antivirus Strategies in Crisis"
    New Scientist (09/03/03); Graham-Rowe, Duncan

    Malware such as viruses and worms has overtaken antivirus software, according to a study that Hewlett-Packard researcher Matthew Williamson will present at a Toronto conference in September. Although most antivirus software that identifies virus "signatures" can eventually stop the spread of malicious code, it cannot effectively prevent viruses from inflicting damage because malware propagates faster than patches can be issued. Williamson finds that the proliferation of a virus cannot be stopped even if the viral signature is available from the moment of its release, if the virus breeds quickly enough. Furthermore, he notes that antivirus software checks for updates no more than once an hour, which is not fast enough to combat the type of viruses that have caused so much trouble recently; too much checking can be misconstrued as an attack. Moreover, signature-based antivirus measures have to scan incoming email for all documented viruses, an unwieldy procedure that can cause system bottlenecks. Williamson thinks signature-based approaches still have value as a way to purge infected computers, but a more effective antivirus tool must be able to take action before signatures become available. The HP scientist based his research on a computer model that simulates the spread of viruses using a model that tracks the propagation of biological viruses as a template, and added specifications to represent the response pattern of antivirus software. Netherlands-based McAfee Avert is developing a heuristic antivirus approach that is very effective at detecting new viruses, but it can also generate false positives.
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  • "Valley Minds Take on Grand Challenge"
    SiliconValley.com (09/05/03); Cassidy, Mike

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Grand Challenge will award $1 million to the engineering team that builds an autonomous vehicle that successfully travels a 250-mile off-road course between Barstow, Calif., and Las Vegas, Nev., within 10 hours--and crosses the finish line ahead of all other vehicles. Some 53 teams have registered for the competition, although DARPA expects perhaps only 20 will have a vehicle ready by March 13, when the race is scheduled. Moreover, DARPA officials say chances are good that none of the competing teams will finish the race. Air Force Col. Jose Negron says the Grand Challenge is designed to help stimulate the development of robot vehicles that can be used in battlefield operations. The event is attracting the interest of Silicon Valley veterans such as John Nagle, whose Team Overbot has received a "mid-six-figures" grant from an anonymous former CEO to develop their vehicle. The robotic vehicles will rely on a combination of global positioning system (GPS) technology, radar, sensors, artificial intelligence, and mapping software to traverse rough desert terrain, negotiate obstacles, and avoid other vehicles. Furthermore, the route of the race will not be made known until two hours before the event. "It's very challenging, because it integrates a lot of different fields--mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science," says computer scientist and Grand Challenge participant Celia Oakley.
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  • "It's Tricky, Grafting Brando's Sneer to Bogart's Shrug"
    New York Times (09/04/03) P. E8; Taub, Eric A.

    Researchers at the University of Southern California are attempting to dissect human movement and speech in order to produce software that can generate virtual humans that are utterly authentic both in appearance and action. Such a breakthrough would be especially attractive to Hollywood, allowing filmmakers to create realistic yet inexpensive artificial characters whose physical and personality traits can be patched together from existing actors. This is not an easy challenge--Dr. Ulrich Neumann of USC's Integrated Media Systems Center explains, "There is such intricacy and detail and proper timing involved in the science of human expressiveness that when something is not right we know it, but we can't explain it." One project at the center involves researchers employing photos to measure the distance between points on a face; they have programmed a computer to build caricatures of one person that incorporate the features of another by overlaying the distances of the first face onto the second. Another part of the research involves filming people to get a sense of how emotions are physically expressed: Their faces are divided into nine areas, and the movements of three muscles in each area are plotted out by distance and timing. From these measurements is derived a formula that expresses the movement of interacting muscles over time to form specific emotional expressions. This formula can be used to manipulate the muscles on a virtual actor to re-create those same expressions. The next step is to add mouth and eye movements that look unpredictable, and the final step is to make the mouth and face move synchronously with the words being spoken while including reflection of what has been said and what is about to be said.
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  • "Many More Worms Will Wriggle Into Our Future"
    San Francisco Chronicle (09/04/03) P. B1; Kirby, Carrie

    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory chief cybersecurity officer Mark Graff posits that a lack of incentive for software companies to design secure products means that software and the Internet will suffer worse virus and worm attacks in the near future. He says that future viruses could cause massive power outages similar to the recent East Coast blackout if the cyber-infrastructure is not better protected. However, Graff is convinced that embedding flawless security in software will not become an industry habit until an even worse hacker-driven catastrophe transpires. He declares that until then, "The attacks are going to come faster and faster, closer together...Eventually, as far as we're concerned, it will be one constant attack." Graff notes that major technological advances are often partly spurred by tragedy. To fend off constantly evolving viruses, networks will need to take combative action automatically and become self-repairing. "We have to look at the network as an immune system that can defend itself with intelligent agents--software that can react and is highly mobile inside the network, that can go to the trouble spot just like white blood cells are transported to a wound spot by the bloodstream," Graff notes. He adds that reliability and security will become even more essential as computers and the Internet spread practically everywhere, including the human body.
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  • "New Software May Enliven Digital Images"
    NewsFactor Network (09/04/03); Martin, Mike

    Online shopping and other digital image-viewing experiences could be significantly augmented by TensorTextures, texture mapping software that faithfully renders the true appearance of any surface from all perspectives and under any lighting conditions. "A material might be very beautiful [online], but a potential customer wouldn't know that--because the image gives a grossly incomplete sense of texture," explains New York University Media Lab researcher Alex Vasilescu, who co-developed TensorTextures with Demetri Terzopoulos. Three-dimensional textured images are furnished through the manipulation of six computer-graphics coordinates by tensors, mathematical objects used by Albert Einstein to render gravity forces. The software employs an algorithm to organize the coordinates and their assigned tensors into an intricate grouping of matrices that format variable illumination and perspective. Greg Ward of ACM's 2003 SIGGRAPH says TensorTextures may circumvent the excessive memory capacity problem that impeded the practicality of earlier texture mapping methods. Vasilescu thinks the software could be available for commercial use within 12 months, and says the tool could have Web and film applications as well. Vasilescu and Terzopoulos detailed TensorTextures in a paper presented at the annual ACM SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference this July.
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  • "Colleges Crack Down on Viruses"
    Associated Press (09/04/03)

    Many universities are scrambling to bolster their computer networks as the school year begins, in the wake of virus infections that plagued the Internet in August. High-speed college networks are kept open on purpose to better facilitate data-sharing, while technology departments frequently moan that they are understaffed, underfunded, and undervalued. Oberlin College in Ohio requires all returning students to have their computers inspected for viruses upon their arrival; infected machines are disconnected, and students that unintentionally help a virus propagate are fined $25. University of North Texas technicians purge malicious code from approximately 16 computers every 90 minutes, while students who have their machines scrubbed for viruses off campus cannot log back onto the school network without proof. MIT research lab manager Kirky DeLong says the university unplugs infected computers, while in certain circumstances officials will bar all incoming and outgoing traffic using a suspect computer's digital fingerprint. Temple University was able to prevent a serious infection by raising awareness of cybersecurity issues and procedures among students and teachers through email and flyers, and the school embeds Symantec antivirus software into students' PCs before they are allowed to check email or go online. The Cleveland school district was able to keep school openings on schedule despite the summer epidemic by enlisting 120 employees to disinfect almost 8,000 machines.
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  • "DNA Forms Building Block for Next Breed of Computer"
    San Diego Union-Tribune (09/01/03); Sidener, Jonathan

    Scripps Research Institute chemist Ehud Keinan says DNA computers cannot be compared to today's silicon-based machines in terms of speed because they work differently. He hopes that DNA computing will be able to solve problems that traditional computers cannot and admits that researchers in his field have a long way to go, and may not be able to produce a worthwhile DNA computer at all. To date, so-called biochips have been created to play tic-tac-toe and solve chess problems, but none have tackled problems that silicon-based computers can't solve. Still, the benefits of DNA computing are compelling: Not only is DNA an extremely efficient form of storage, but the chemical reactions that power DNA computing require miniscule amounts of energy compared to silicon computing; DNA computing is also massively parallel and can perform many simultaneous calculations since strands can be snipped into millions of smaller pieces and operated at once. The DNA language has four components compared to electronic computers' binary code, and enzymes are used to read and reorder DNA strands in a way that completes computer calculations. Keinan is a veteran in the relatively new field of DNA computing, having worked on the first autonomous DNA computer at Israel's Institute of Technology, Technion. University of California computer science professor Pavel Pevzner says the challenge for DNA computing researchers now is to solve a problem that traditional computers cannot; he says that type of breakthrough would catalyze their nascent field. Keinan is now about to publish work that signals a DNA-calculated result in a beaker of bacteria. By displaying the computer result in the changed pigment of the bacteria, Keinan's team expects to show that DNA devices can interact with biology, which could one day lead to direct interference at a cellular level.
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  • "Virginia Tech Building Power Mac G5 Supercomputer"
    TechNewsWorld (09/03/03); Lyman, Jay

    Virginia Tech will combine 1,100 dual-processor 2 GHz Power Mac G5 computers, 64-bit Infiniband semiconductor technology from Mellanox, Gigabit Ethernet switches from Cisco, a high-density rack-mounted cooling system from Liebert, and a beta version of the latest OS X release into an incredibly fast supercomputer cluster that costs about 10 times less than a conventional supercomputer, according to Virginia Tech College of Engineering dean Hassan Aref. Yankee Group analyst Dana Gardner says the project emphasizes the shift from monolithic mainframe supercomputing to cheaper grid architectures, and adds that OS X's BSD kernel antecedents and Linux and Unix ancestry make it well suited for the cluster. Aref says the large number of G5 machines will enable the cluster to handle more projects and support greater access. "It will allow calculations that have been difficult on other clusters and allow us to peer into a new level of research," he boasts. The supercomputer will be used for research into nanoscale electronics, aerodynamics, quantum and computational chemistry, and protein modeling. The university says staff, students, Israeli and Japanese consultants, and hardware and software providers all had input into the cluster's construction. Aref notes that the project showcases American know-how and technology, even though there have been worries that America's supercomputing effort is lagging behind other countries.
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  • "Microsoft's Patent Loss Rattles Tech Community"
    IDG News Service (09/03/03); Roberts, Paul

    Microsoft's recent court loss to Eolas Technologies and the University of California could mean significant disruption for companies that incorporate Web browser technology in their products or services. Firms such as Apple, Real Networks, Macromedia, and numerous smaller firms will have to adjust their software code in order to keep from infringing on the patent, which covers small programs embedded in Web pages, often called applets or plug-ins. The World Wide Web Consortium is looking into the effects of the patent on its developing or established standards. Independent technology expert Richard Smith says Microsoft failed to convince the court of "prior art" that would have invalidated the patent claim, first filed in 1994 by Eolas President Michael Doyle while at the University of California in San Francisco; Smith notes that technologists often underestimate the actual effect of patents and assume prior art when there is none. Eolas' claim has only been strengthened by Microsoft's failure to produce evidence against it. For now, other companies are reviewing their product's code and tweaking the Web delivery of their services. Smith says that Web pages using Macromedia's Flash and Java applets will be affected, and Microsoft is expected to discontinue its ActiveX controls. Security experts were at first elated to hear about the possible discontinuation of ActiveX, which is famously insecure despite its functionality for Web developers. Intellectual property attorney Jim Gatto says Eolas will likely target a few large firms first and that the case will encourage other small companies to go to court over their patent claims.
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  • "Campaigning for Computerized Voting"
    Technology Review (09/03/03); Garfinkel, Simson

    Many people are opposed to the computerization of voting, arguing that it will erode the foundations of democracy that accurately counted free elections have come to represent. Direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are being criticized by most computer professionals for their lack of an audit trail and alleged susceptibility to tampering, but Ted Selker, formerly of IBM Research, contends that such machines can actually improve the electoral process, which is riddled with problems--many of which are attributed to its paper-based approach. Examples Selker provides include paper's bulkiness and weight, its fragility and tendency to get jammed in machines, and legibility problems. Furthermore, politicians can compromise elections by exploiting printed audit trails using such underhanded techniques as chain voting. DRE voting machines, Selker maintains, can prevent bribing, intimidation, and other forms of vote tampering. At the same time, he acknowledges that current electronic voting systems touted by U.S. companies are too big, too expensive, and suffer from poor encryption. In his opinion, a much more sensible approach is to adopt Brazil's model, in which DREs follow an open design and review process, and are compact and easy to use. Regardless of Selker's views, many reputable researchers still rail against DREs: On his VerifiedVoting.org Web site, Stanford professor David Dill writes that "Election technology has not advanced to the point where it can provide us with electronic systems that are reliable enough to trust with our democracy."
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  • "Email Updates Six Degrees Theory"
    Technology Research News (09/03/03); Patch, Kimberly

    Columbia University researchers have validated the small-world phenomenon first discovered by Stanley Milgram's famous 1967 sociology study, but have shown some of the associated hypotheses to be wrong. Rather than starting letter chains aimed at finding a specific individual, the Columbia researchers recruited 24,163 volunteers to send emails to acquaintances who they thought might know the target or someone close to that person; out of the 24,163 original chains, only 384 reached the 18 target persons by way of 166 countries and a total of 61,168 email messages. The researchers surveyed participants to find out why they did or did not forward the email, and why they chose their contact if they did forward it. The successful chains reached their target in five to seven steps, on average, similar to Milgram's study; but analysis of those successful chains showed participants chose contacts based on geography and their field of work, not on their social connectedness, as was hypothesized in Milgram's work. Cornell University applied mathematics professor Stephen Strogatz says the study confirms the basic tenet of a small-world model, but reveals methods that Milgram did not have the resources to investigate. Other conclusions show that more numerous, weak friendships are better for connectedness than close friendships that are insular. Ohio State University sociology assistant professor Jim Moody says the study will help understand widespread email communication and the proliferation of viruses. Columbia research scientist Peter Sheridan Dodds says a similar study is being designed that will allow participants to send the message to more than one contact and will ask more questions about their methods. He says the research has implications for peer-to-peer networks and knowledgebases, as well as social, pathological, and economic fields of study.
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  • "Mice Sign on the Dotted Line"
    BBC News (09/01/03)

    A computer scientist at Queen Mary, University of London, has created a security system that allows people to sign their name online with a mouse. Dr. Peter McOwan says the software, which serves as another biometric layer, allows the mouse to act as a surrogate pen. The security system makes use of smart software that is able to determine how someone writes their name and recognize other identifying symbols. Using a neural network, the software is able to learn the important characteristics of how someone writes their name with a mouse after about 20 examples. "It's another way of indicating that you as an individual are sitting there on the end of the line," explains McOwan. The software could determine whether browsers at a Web site are who they claim to be, or check the identity of a person attempting to use a credit card. In early tests, the security system was found to be 99% accurate in determining the identity of computer science department students using a mouse to sign.
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  • "Machine-to-Machine Talk Not Stuff of Fiction"
    Chicago Tribune (09/02/03); Van, Jon

    John Pazol's nPhase company develops software that enables machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, a trend stemming from pervasive computing. The Forrester Group predicts that there could be as many machines talking to each other on wireless networks as people by 2005, while McKinsey & Co. estimates that the M2M communications market will be worth $100 billion annually by the end of the decade. NPhase's clients include BioLab, which hired Pazol's company to build a system that checks the chemical contents of swimming pools and sends such data over AT&T Wireless' cell-phone network to a network operations center where it is recorded in databases. Pool owners can access this system anytime to check pool conditions, while the system automatically notifies maintenance staff via pager or cell phone when it senses the pool's chemical levels are imbalanced. NPhase also set up an M2M system for Checkers Drive-In Restaurants that times how long it takes a customer to get his order, allowing management to compare the efficiency of different establishments and create improvement strategies, says Checkers CFO David Koehler. Checkers plans to employ the system to watch temperatures in refrigeration and freezer units to determine when they should be replaced and to more efficiently manage electricity usage. Analysts say more businesses are embracing M2M networking as the technology costs less and less. Pazol expects to set up M2M networking between household appliances and maintenance organizations in order to more effectively facilitate repairs and parts replacement.
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  • "Networking the Net Lobby"
    Australian IT (09/02/03); Hayes, Simon

    In an interview with Australian IT, new ICANN chief Dr. Paul Twomey says his background in government as the head of the National Office for the Information Economy and as a businessman in the incubator Argo Pacific has convinced him that a move to the governing body for domain names would be logical. Twomey, who watched a number of businesses become stable while at the incubator, says his biggest challenge at ICANN will be to oversee the governing body as it moves from the startup stage to a mature organization. He expects staff to grow from 22 members to 40 members by the end of the year, and possibly to 60 staff members in the near future. Every three months, the organization's policy development process brings together a group of 1,000 people that interacts with another 10,000, and Twomey says ICANN is able to represent a diverse group because it has specific liaisons tackle certain issues, such as the Generic Domain Names Supporting Organization, which focuses on generic names such as dot-com. Though developing countries are becoming increasingly aware about domain name issues, Twomey adds that ICANN is responding to criticism over representation by "putting lots of effort into at-large representation and developing a balance between demand and supply members." Twomey says multilingual domain names and digital certificates and their relationship with IPv6 are issues that he is particularly concerned about. He acknowledges that there is some opposition to the private organization model of ICANN. As for the issue of security, Twomey says the Internet is stable, adding that a technology called anycast will be increasingly used for root servers.
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  • "Mind-Expanding Machines"
    Science News (08/30/03) Vol. 164, No. 9, P. 136; Bower, Bruce

    The University of West Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) is a center for development of cognitive prostheses designed to augment or expand human perceptions and intellectual capabilities; such a concept is a core component of human-centered computing, a field of study that shuns the traditional objective of artificial intelligence, which is to build a computer that mimics human thought. The OZ cockpit-display system is a cognitive prosthesis developed by IHMC that integrates gauges and dials into a visual rendering of an aircraft cockpit and outside conditions: OZ project director David L. Still explains that a pilot using OZ can understand the plane's condition much faster than he could with traditional cockpit simulators. Such quick visualization is essential when pilots are forced to make critical decisions in combat and emergency situations, and 27 military flight instructors who were trained on OZ found controlling altitude, heading, and airspeed much more effective than in conventional simulations. IHMC associate director Alberto Canas and colleagues have devised concept-mapping software, a cognitive prosthesis that visualizes knowledge on specific subjects by drawing connections between nodes or principles. The software could be applied most widely in the educational sector, enabling students to understand a topic far better than they would through memorization, according to Canas. IHMC's Brahms system is based on social science theories that dissect people's individual behaviors as functions of activities, allowing it to pattern people's daily behaviors in the workplace and run simulations to formulate more effective job practices. This is achieved through a computer-generated cartoon version of work groups and their activities, and IHMC computer scientist William J. Clancey thinks Brahms could be used to shed light on how scientific teams on Mars could adapt their plans to unanticipated discoveries. IHMC director Kenneth M. Ford states that research in human-centered computing "will help us formulate what we really want from computers and what roles we wish to retain for ourselves."
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  • "Outsmarting Spam"
    InformationWeek (09/01/03) No. 953, P. 18; Kontzer, Tony

    Growing animosity toward unsolicited commercial email and the productivity losses associated with it is making the battle against spam a priority for many businesses, although most respondents to a recent InformationWeek survey report that their spam-filtering controls leave a lot to be desired, while over 50% do not even know how much spam they receive. Approximately one-third of the 550 polled business-technology executives say their companies have made the elimination of spam a high priority, while most consider it a moderate priority. The Radicati Group just issued a study estimating that a 10,000-employee company without spam-fighting tools will spend $49 per user on server resources to deal with spam in 2003, and the firm expects the per-user cost to skyrocket to $257 by 2007. Fifty percent of the InformationWeek survey's respondents are resigned to spam becoming a routine part of everyday life, while companies that do not monitor spam in their in-boxes blame their lack of vigilance on the ineffectiveness of filtering tools as well as the speed at which spam methods change. Some companies are also frustrated that handling spam eats up time that could be put to better use. However, Osterman Research principal analyst Michael Osterman thinks spam-fighting technology has improved significantly over the last 12 months, while the general level of satisfaction with such tools is rising. Daiwa Securities America co-CIO Stephen McCabe adds that third-party firms can relieve internal IT staff of some of the burden of tackling spam by scanning inbound email for unsolicited commercial messages. IT groups that are able to successfully reduce or control spam may be able to get senior executives in their corner to support other projects.
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  • "A Vote for the Future"
    Government Technology (08/03) Vol. 16, No. 10, P. 36; Harris, Blake

    Lessons learned from new voting machine technologies tested by over 200 U.S. counties in last year's elections include the need for infallibility, and particularly successful was a Fairfax County, Va., tryout of Advanced Voting Solutions' (AVS) touchscreen WINvote machines, which use Wi-Fi technology. The AVS machines are more clearly aligned with a wish-list organized by the Fairfax election staff than any other available technology, according to Margaret Luca of the Fairfax County Election Board. Fairfax election manager Judy Flaig says the most important desired component is decentralized control: "We didn't want to be dependent on a system that used a central controller--or some kind of master machine--so if that master went down, the whole precinct would be dead in the water," she explains. AVS' Brian Finney says WINvote fulfills that requirement because the machine stores voter data in several places. Luca notes that the size and relatively light weight of WINvote machines is another appealing factor, while their accessibility to disabled citizens satisfies the county's desire to comply with the Help America Vote Act. Flaig adds that the wireless system will help save taxpayers money by significantly reducing the time it takes to set up the machine--for instance, all county ballots can be loaded into all units in a matter of minutes. Election officers and poll workers can wirelessly activate and accumulate ballots at the touch of a button; WINvote also furnishes a printed audit trail, boasts an assortment of fonts and languages, and presents a summary screen to voters so they can check to see if they voted correctly. The Wi-Fi network is also highly encrypted and needs multiple passwords to be accessed, which promotes security.
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  • "Does IM Have Business Value?"
    Business Communications Review (08/03) Vol. 33, No. 8, P. 40; Bellman, Bob

    Instant messaging is valued among enterprises for its presence, which allows users to know ahead of time who is available and unavailable to chat; near-real-time message delivery, which offers a higher level of interaction than email; and multiple correspondence, which enables users to be more efficient and productive. "IM lets you work more effectively in an information-rich, time-critical world," declares Jon Sakoda of IMLogic. Other benefits of IM include significant savings in international phone calls and other forms of communication--a February report from Osterman Research estimates that almost 81% of responding companies lowered phone use and 67% reduced email use through IM. In addition, IM does not cause network congestion, nor does IM inhibit network operations. Though some IM services are free, the companies that offer them expect to realize new revenue by bundling IM with other products and value-added services, or via IM "bot" applications. However, IM's availability to anyone worries managers concerned with upholding network security; viruses and hacks can piggyback on IM-enabled file transfers, and IM easily allows business transactions to be carried out and proprietary data to be disseminated without an audit trail. Other drawbacks to IM include incompatible IM applications, the intense difficulty in deactivating IM once it is activated, and IM's potential to interrupt important tasks. A number of years will pass before IM standards are mature enough to facilitate interoperability, and before companies understand the best ways to leverage IM.
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