Association for Computing Machinery
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 AutoChoice Advisor or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 6, Issue 601:  Monday, February 2, 2004

  • "For Science, Nanotech Poses Big Unknowns"
    Washington Post (02/01/04) P. A1; Weiss, Rick

    An anti-nanotechnology movement is brewing, sparked by health and environmental fears that industry advocates claim are mostly fueled by popular fiction. The nanotech industry and the government are trying to understand why the public is so distrustful of nanotech through sociological, ethical, and philosophical studies, and proponents say such studies will guarantee that nanotech research proceeds in a responsible manner. National Science Foundation director Rita Cowell insists that the industry must work "benignly and equitably" to establish public trust, and avoid the same public relations blunders that characterized the rollout of biotechnology. No doubt adding to the public's concerns about nanotech are several studies released last month revealing that engineered nanoparticles behave differently and can damage lung tissue far worse than conventional toxic particles; additional studies have also shown that inhaled nanoparticles can reach the brain and penetrate cell nuclei--this ability could be tapped as a mechanism for nanoscale drug delivery, but many cells were killed by the nanoparticles in tests. Overall, neither the biological nor the environmental effects of nanoparticles have been clearly established, but industry reassurances of their safety have not quelled anxiety. "The starting point to me is to acknowledge that we don't know what the risks of nano are, and we don't know what the benefits are, and we won't for some time," notes Stockholm Environment Institute director and Clark University risk specialist Roger Kasperson. To win regulatory approval, manufacturers of potentially toxic materials must clearly describe the products' nature and how much of it will be fabricated, but nanoparticles are more difficult to pin down, given that bulk substances may behave differently at nanoscale.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Technology and Worker Efficiency"
    New York Times (02/02/04) P. C6; Lohr, Steve

    Common wisdom dictates that technology is chiefly responsible for the American economy's productivity gains over the last few years. Current research indicates, however, that the productivity gains are not so much attributable to technology but its integration with organization capital, which can include a company's work practices, its repository of corporate knowledge, and even its culture and value system. MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson postulates that the most efficient companies are characterized by teams, and operations that are split into centralized and decentralized architectures. Centralized work, such as accounts payable systems, is easily computed, while decentralized work--product design, for instance--involves local expertise and interpersonal skills. Brynjolfsson also finds a disproportionate amount of organization capital investments compared to technology investments: For example, $4 million out of a $20 million enterprise resource planning project is spent on new hardware and software acquisitions, while the remaining $16 million is dedicated to organization capital or "computer-enabled assets." Former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center John Seely Brown believes even more innovation and corporate efficiency can be squeezed out of recent software advances, which would allow companies to automate business operations in a decentralized manner. Examples of technology he cites as critical to this migration include Web standards-based software systems, and instant messaging and other forms of "social software." When taken together, these IT components will help workers better understand company operations and become more able to "collectively improvise and innovate," according to Brown.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "IETF Closes in on Linking Geographic Info, Presence"
    Instant Messaging Planet (01/28/04); Saunders, Christopher

    The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is nearing the final stages for approval of a privacy standard for geography-aware presence technology. Instant messaging first introduced presence technology several years ago, and the concept has matured since then with nuanced status messages such as "on the phone." In addition, telephony, Web conferencing, and groupware applications have also made use of presence technology. The next logical addition is the integration of location data, and the IETF Geographic Location/Privacy Working Group (GEOPRIV) is nearing completion of a standard that will likely get broad support, given the wide range of industry participants. Instant messaging presence was a huge topic at the IETF and GEOPRIV stays close to the privacy standards laid out in those discussions, says draft recommendation author Jon Peterson of Neustar. He notes that the GEOPRIV protocols use minimum markups and are designed for integration with existing geodata standards such as OpenGIS and Geography Markup Language (GML). GEOPRIV focuses mainly on privacy controls over the location information, trying to allocate the same user-control capabilities to geographic presence that are available for instant messaging. Some applications include automatic alerts to available IT administrators who are near failed servers or automatic location notification for 911 emergency calls made via VoIP systems. Peterson was also involved in early work on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and SIP for Internet Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE); he says the GEOPRIV draft recommendation will probably near Request for Comment status by early March.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Vulnerable Servers Warned"
    IDG News Service (01/29/04); Gross, Grant

    The Federal Trade Commission has teamed up with government agencies from 26 countries to press owners of Internet servers to close any open relays or open proxies. As part of Operation Secure Your Server, the government agencies will email tens of thousands of server owners to check their server configurations, and will include a resource businesses can use to patch any vulnerabilities. "Open relays and open proxies are servers that allow any computer in the world to bounce or route email through them to other Internet mail addresses," explains Don Blumenthal, coordinator of the FTC Internet Lab. "Open relays and open proxies are often exploited by people who flood the Internet with spam." Moreover, some experts believe creators of viruses and worms use open relays to distribute them and to hide their identities as well. The FTC has identified more than 1 million IP addresses that are open relays for spammers.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Mood Ring Measured in Megahertz"
    Wired News (01/29/04); Delio, Michelle

    Sandia National Laboratories' Mentor/PAL program uses off-the-shelf sensors and face-recognition software to provide an environment in which collaborators are kept apprised of their own--and each other's--moods and performance levels in order to optimize decision-making in high-risk scenarios. Through analysis of perspiration, heartbeat, head orientation, facial expressions, and voice tones, the Mentor/PAL interface notifies people when they are stressed out, talking too much, etc, ; it can also tell people which team members are in the best condition to handle specific assignments. Mentor/PAL director Peter Merkle says preliminary tests show the system boosts teamwork and reduces stress in the workplace. He says the system functions in very much the same way a baseball coach bases his decisions and strategies on statistics, and notes that the system is mainly designed for military use, in which optimal decision-making is critical for mission success. Mentor/PAL was tested through observation of how the system functioned while two teams played a military strategy game. Critics argue that Mentor/PAL's monitoring of physical data violates a person's right to keep personal medical information confidential; "This seems to be one more example of a growing trend of employers to gather worker's medical information to address some business issue," posits Tena Friery of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Efficiency consultant Joe Aldrama does not think such a system would be used by employers to watchdog employees' performance, though he acknowledges that the technology has potential as a personal biofeedback tool. The Sandia researchers agree that the use of Mentor/PAL by private companies would hinge on whether privacy-upholding mechanisms to personally control the information flow can be incorporated into the system.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Is the Superworm a Mere Myth?"
    TechNewsWorld (01/30/04); Germain, Jack M.

    Security experts such as Harvey Mudd College's Geoffrey Kuenning believe a superworm attack against the cyber-infrastructure of the United States is an inevitability, given the growing frequency and extent of worm and virus outbreaks in 2003. Kuenning cited last year's massive blackout as proof that the Internet can be knocked out, even though malware was only indirectly responsible. He also believes terrorists possess the resources to launch a superworm attack whenever they wish, though F-Secure antivirus research director Mikko Hypponen doubts that a terrorist-orchestrated superworm assault is imminent, given that terrorists prefer the more direct--and effective--strategy of physical violence. Michael Paquette of Top Layer Networks is puzzled that a superworm attack has not already taken place, given the number of vulnerable machines. He says the feasibility of a superworm attack was proven by the Sinit Trojan, which installs backdoors that hackers can access to commandeer compromised computers. Sinit seems to follow a peer-to-peer approach in which the worm goes to no single centralized site for its payload, while its use of encryption makes the Trojan harder to detect as malicious code. The MyDoom worm, which also installs backdoors in infected systems, could add another tool to terrorists' arsenal. Most security professionals agree that network administrators would have little defense against a coordinated superworm attack.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "More Scary Tales Involving Big Holes in Web-Site Security"
    Wall Street Journal (02/02/04) P. B1; Gomes, Lee

    The market for Web application security is heating up due to several high-profile security flaws that have been discovered in corporate Web sites. These flaws open the door to incidents of industrial espionage and identity theft, as hackers can use the flaws to gain access to customer databases and information about a company's daily operations. Now that most of the Internet's basic infrastructure has been secured, Web security specialists are trying to improve the security of the software programs that run many corporate Web sites. There are a wide variety of these software programs, with some being created wholly by in-house programmers and others available as commercial applications. The security of these programs varies widely. The list of companies with recently discovered insecure corporate Web sites includes Gateway, Kohl's, Iomega, Tiffany.com, and University Subscription Service. Gateway's security problem stemmed from the fact that the Web site's ID numbers were only six digits long, meaning that hackers could potentially create scripts to harvest consumer data. Gateway says it fixed the security problem over the weekend. MIT graduate student and security consultant Kevin Fu says Web-applications developers need to be aware of a wide variety of possible security hazards, such as SQL injection, in which SQL database queries from Web browsers are limited to providing just basic information.

  • "New Software Helps Lift "Fog of War""
    Newswise (02/02/04)

    The "fog" that often hinders military operations could be lifted with the help of a software system developed by University of Buffalo researchers that integrates and shares data collected by air and ground sensors to monitor and anticipate the movements of friendly and unfriendly forces, explains Tarunraj Singh of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "By combining and filtering the information, our system will give military leaders the ability to monitor the theater of war with a lens that transitions from a soda-straw view to a bird's-eye view," he notes. Rakesh Nagi, who is co-directing the system's development with Singh, says the data collated by the system will help commanders determine a enemy's intent and make strategic decisions and counter actions. Battlefield scenarios along with regional topography are represented in three dimensions on a computer screen or laptop, while the software architecture allows scaling from the laptop to the supercomputing level to address problems ranging from track prediction/estimation to the design of computing-intensive systems for network-centric warfare operations. The UB researchers point out that the system can also be employed for environmental monitoring or disaster response. The system's development is underwritten in part by Rosettex Technology & Ventures Group, which collaborates with the National Technology Alliance to launch and market technologies that fulfill national security and defense requirements. UB researchers believe a prototype of the software's air tracking/fusion element will be delivered to Rosettex in February, followed by the delivery of ground tracking/fusion capability in 2005.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Memory Evolution: Survival of the Smallest"
    New York Times (02/02/04) P. C3; Taub, Eric A.

    Flash memory cards are becoming more spacious, smaller in size, cheaper, and more numerous as their market grows rapidly; but the constitution of that market is expected to change over the coming years as the former frontrunner CompactFlash format falls behind the more technically flexible SD Card and Memory Stick formats. Mini hard drives are also challenging the flash memory market in some applications. Consumers are likely to use flash memory cards as a way to easily create compatibility between media recording and playing devices in the home, such as mobile phones, PDAs, camcorders, TVs, and portable music players. Long-term, the SD Card and Memory Stick technologies will be the only two major flash memory formats, says SanDisk's Nelson Chan, whose company is the only firm licensed to make all flash memory types, including the less common MultiMediaCard, SmartMedia, and xD-Picture Card. CompactFlash Association executive director Bill Frank says that although Memory Stick and SD Card can be made in smaller versions compatible with tiny mobile phones, it is technically impossible to shrink CompactFlash. Mobile phones are expected to comprise 29 percent of the flash memory market by 2006. With rapidly growing capacities, consumer electronics makers are coming out with products such as Panasonic's recently demonstrated flash-memory camcorder prototype, weighing less than six ounces and about the size of a credit card. Analysts say that flash memory cards will always be cheaper than mini hard drives, as well as able to withstand rougher handling because they have no moving parts; Gartner's John Monroe says memory-intensive applications such as MP3 players will continue to use mini hard drives while lower-end products will use flash memory cards.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Flexible Display Screens Readied for Production"
    Washington Post (02/02/04) P. A8; Weiss, Rick

    Flexible electronic displays are finally starting to edge toward mass production, starting with Royal Philips Electronics' rollable screen that could be fabricated at a rate of 1 million units a year by the end of 2005, according to Bas J.E. van Rens of Philips' Polymer Vision division. The ultrathin screen can be rolled into a tube less than two inches in diameter, and boasts polymer circuitry. Text is produced by E Ink's e-paper technology, a sheet of plastic embedded with electronic ink microcapsules containing thousands of oppositely charged black and white particles that configure into patterns when subjected to an electric current. The display is readable at practically any angle and in bright sunlight because ambient light is reflected off a white background, and the device consumes less power than light-emitting displays. Other companies are taking different approaches to the fabrication of flexible electronics: Plastic Logic does not etch out plastic transistors as Philips does, but prints circuitry onto a polyester substrate using dot matrix printers. Flexible displays will be initially marketed to niche customers--the military is interested in using the technology for advanced camouflage, while stores would like updateable, portable display boards. Rollup electronic maps and newspapers are further out on the horizon, but Sony is slated to introduce an e-book that employs Philips and E Ink technology in the spring. Watch bands or bracelets that display streaming news or other information are also being looked into.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Giving Robots a Human Face"
    Associated Press (01/29/04); Slagle, Matt

    Most robotics experts frown at the idea of building robots that closely resemble human beings, on the grounds that they will not be accepted because of the "Uncanny Valley" maxim, which posits that machines with increasingly human-like features will make people uncomfortable. This assumption is reflected in most robotics projects: Sony's QRIO robot is humanoid, but not too human in appearance; Graduate Robot Attending a ConferencE (GRACE), developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and other academic institutions, is a flat-screen TV that displays emotional expressions; and MIT's Kismet has eyes, ears, and eyebrows, but the rest of its face is metal and plastic. But some roboticists think realistic machines are an important step toward the evolution of social robots. One such researcher is David Hanson, a self-styled "sculptor roboticist" whose brainchild, Hertz, has a face modeled after his girlfriend. Hertz's eyes are equipped with video cameras to track people's faces; the robot also has limited speech capabilities, but its most striking feature is a skin-like polymer Hanson calls f'rubber, while electronic motors are incorporated within Hertz's face so it can make realistic facial expressions. Hanson dismisses the notion that robots with human faces will repel people, insisting that "The human face is perhaps the most natural paradigm for us to interact with." Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil values Hanson's work because realistic facial movement will be key to successful human-android interaction. However, robots must first become intelligent enough to accurately read people's expressions, a development that Kurzweil thinks is about two decades away.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Nanotech's Big Challenge: Getting to Market"
    Red Herring (01/20/04)

    Julie Chen, director of the National Science Foundation's nanomanufacturing program, must shepherd nanotechnology projects out of the research and development phase and into the business sector. It is a heavy responsibility: Though many nanotech applications may not be ready for the corporate sector for at least 10 years, billions of dollars could be lost if the design and construction of the manufacturing infrastructure is put off. Chen estimates that it could take half a century to reap the rewards of nanotech by following the linear lab-discovery-to-fabrication cycle, and says it is critical that nanotech researchers show how the technology can be mass-produced. Private investors are also threatening to scale back equity and debt funding if nanotech researchers, industry leaders, and policy makers fail to give nanomanufacturing a deeper focus; most investors do not want to pour capital into long-term nanotech research and projects, and are only supporting enterprises that boast some connection to a major manufacturer. Investors also expect startups to have worked out some kind of fabrication initiative, at the very least. Former Texas Instruments chief technologist and current director of a Stanford University nanofabrication facility Yoshio Nishi notes that economic pressures have forced chipmakers to reach below 0.1 micron process geometries to stay financially solvent, while nanowire and other "revolutionary" technologies are not attractive to industry, leaving funding in the hands of governments. Hewlett-Packard's emphasis on nanochip fabrication via physical imprint lithography and other chipmakers' interest in laser-based fabrication suggest that the below 0.1 micron nanochip manufacturing process leads nowhere.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The Future of U.S. Tech Employment"
    CNet (01/29/04); Frauenheim, Ed

    America needs to boost its federal research and development and create regional strategies for countering globalization, says National Innovation Initiative co-chairman Wayne Clough. Along with co-chairman and IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, Clough is charged with formulating ways to keep the United States competitive in the face of increasing white-collar outsourcing. His findings and recommendations lay the groundwork for a planned national summit by the Council on Competitiveness, a coalition of U.S. business, academic, and labor interests. Clough says waves of new technologies will challenge current structures and that the U.S. has to adjust as logistics, biotech, and nanotechnology make their impact at different times. The end of the Cold War dampened federal interest in innovation and shifted research focus from electrical engineering, mathematics, chemical engineering, etc., to more politically sensitive issues such as health care. The Bush administration, however, deserves credit for boosting national research spending above the $100 billion mark to $120 billion. Clough says the U.S. has to adjust to work with companies based overseas such as Siemens while allowing U.S.-based firms such as IBM to expand globally. He notes that the United States still has an innovation edge due to robust venture capital, benign regulatory laws, and an entrepreneurial culture; in this regard, China, India, and other fast-growing nations should not be viewed as determents, but contributors to a stable, balanced, and growing world economy. Clough says the most important factor to long-term U.S. competitiveness is the education of the workforce to be flexible and adaptable, while state governments also play a big role and need to identify their regional strengths and capitalize on them with research alliances and even seed capital funds for startups that are partially owned by the public.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Researchers on a Roll With Flexible Computers"
    NewsFactor Network (01/29/04); Martin, Mike

    Televisions and screens that can be rolled up instead of folded could become a reality thanks to a flexible organic light emitting device (FOLED) developed by University of Toronto engineers. Materials science professor Zheng-Hong Lu, with the assistance of post-doctoral fellow Sijin Han and engineering science student Brian Fung, created FOLEDs out of an assortment of flexible and lightweight ingredients, such as reflective metal foils and transparent polymers. Lu maintains that the FOLED mass production process could be inexpensive and highly efficient, and estimates that a commercial FOLED device could be ready within two to three years. Bill McKee of Xerox reports that flexible technology is also a major focus for his company, with its electronic paper and printed organic electronics research initiatives. "In October, researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center announced the first plastic semiconductor transistor array entirely patterned using jet printing," McKee points out. "Jet printing will lower costs by replacing vacuum deposition and photolithography in current manufacturing." Beng Ong at Xerox Research Center Canada notes that the commercialization of FOLED technology is a formidable challenge, given how difficult it is to cheaply manufacture a large-screen FOLED display.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Dancing the Quantum Dream"
    New Scientist (01/24/04) Vol. 181, No. 2431, P. 30; Parsons, Paul

    A quantum computer carries such promised capabilities as ultrafast database searches and a "virtual lab" where the behavior of materials can be predicted without actually fabricating them, but a practical quantum computer must be immune to decoherence, in which computations are undone because even the slightest disturbance results in data leakage. Microsoft Research's Alexei Kitaev and Michael Freedman, along with Zhenghan Wang and Michael Larson of Indiana University, may have solved the problem with their outline of a topological quantum computer that could be constructed out of existing technology. The operating principle of the device is the manipulation of quantum particles--non-Abelian anyons--into braids that exist in both time and space. These anyons' "world lines" can be weaved around each other into knots that encode information; this braiding could be accomplished with an instrument similar to a scanning tunneling microscope. "The state of the quantum computer is stored in the conserved charges that the anyons carry," notes Caltech's John Preskill. "Even if you hit an anyon with a hammer, you can't change that charge, so the state stored in the computer is quite robust." Bringing the anyons together in pairs allows topological charges to be read off: Those with equal and opposite charges annihilate each other, creating a "0" output, and those with unbalanced charges merge into a new anyon, resulting in a "1" output. The topological quantum computer is still speculative, since the existence of non-Abelian anyons has yet to be proved.

  • "Dealing With the Darker Side"
    Scientific American (01/04) Vol. 290, No. 1, P. 61; Want, Roy

    Plans by Benetton and Wal-Mart to monitor inventory with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags were met with strong protest by privacy advocates worried that the technology could be abused by criminals and the government by keeping track of product purchases without consumers' awareness. Such issues must be resolved before RFID technology can widely proliferate. Privacy proponents have voiced concerns that RFID tags attached to items bought with credit or debit cards would connect purchasers to store or card databases that marketers could exploit; another worry is that RFID technology will automatically generate an audit trail of commercial transactions that employers could use to keep tabs on workers and their activities, while courts could regard the logs of RFID tag readers as evidence. The industrial workforce could also oppose RFID tagging, given the potential of RFID tools to render many jobs obsolete. So that RFID may not be used for surveillance purposes, it is suggested that a kill switch be built into each tag attached to a consumer product, so that the device can be deactivated after purchase. Commentator Declan McCullagh thinks RFID tags used on consumer products should fulfill four criteria: Purchasers must be notified of the tags' presence; all tags should be visible and easily removed; they must be deactivated by default at checkout; and they should be attached to the item's packaging rather than the item itself.

  • "Software Piracy: A Growing Problem"
    Software Development Times (01/15/04) No. 94, P. 19; Morgan, Lisa

    The Business Software Alliance estimates that the illegal copying and distribution of software in the United States added up to 105,000 lost jobs, $2 billion in lost revenue, $5.3 billion in lost salaries, and over $1.4 billion in lost tax revenue in 2002 alone; despite this and worries of worse to come, some software publishers remain hesitant to deploy software safeguards and licensing management solutions because of the additional costs, software complexity, and possible product interference they represent. Most acts of software piracy stem from simple carelessness such as failure to read software license agreements before signing on--but whether such piracy is committed out of ignorance or malice, it still can add up to criminal and/or civil liability for the perpetrator and his or her company. Software licensing and security vendors note that there is no absolute, unbreakable defense against software piracy, but businesses can complicate it to the degree that pirates will have to pay a substantial toll for their labors. "Software developers need to sell more than just software; they also need to sell locks and keys," observes Aladdin Knowledge Systems CEO Yanki Margalit. Hardware-based locks and keys are "dongles" that are inserted into USB or serial ports and whose presence is checked by software before applications are unlocked, while software-based solutions include product activation and server-centric techniques in which users and their software are continuously validated. Dongles have been criticized for their cost and maintenance, as well as their potential to be misplaced or spoofed, while software activation, to name just one software solution, is open to abuse. Unauthorized distribution can be foiled by attaching software license agreements to software products, while third-party vendors are offering shell wrappers and application programming interfaces, which give software developers the ability to encrypt different files separately.
    Click Here to View Full Article