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 ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 787:  Wednesday, May 4, 2005

  • "Computing Officials Worry That Proposed Federal Database Could Be Hacked"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (05/06/05) Vol. 51, No. 35, P. A37; Carnevale, Dan

    The U.S. Department of Education is considering a "unit record" database listing information on individual students, but technology experts are worried about the database's vulnerability to hacking, a pressing concern in light of recent intrusions into college and company servers. Purdue University computer sciences professor and USACM chair Eugene Spafford warns that a large database, constructed ostensibly to keep tabs on student retention and graduation rates, is an irresistible target, and susceptible to an attack from any point in the system because of its size. Grover Whitehurst, director of the Education Department's Institute of Educational Sciences, says the department has yet to submit the unit record database concept to Congress, and is currently receptive to any ideas for securing confidential student data. He says the database would probably be disconnected from the Internet, making it impossible for hackers to breach the server through public computer networks. Whitehurst also says no Social Security numbers would be listed in the database, and he strongly doubts the information in the database--student names, places of enrollment, classes students are taking, financial aid they are getting, etc.--would make a particularly attractive target. Former ACM President Barbara Simons says a government database that tracks information about individual students is cause for worry, and wonders how the people who access the data would be trustworthy in the Education Department's eyes. Whitehurst says the department will consult with computer security experts before moving ahead with any unit record database proposal.

  • "Lawmaker Rips RFID Passport Plans"
    Wired News (05/04/05); Zetter, Kim

    House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) told European diplomats last week that he was distressed at European countries' plans to equip passports with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, because they were an unproven technology that would hold up and add costs to the rollout of more secure passports. Furthermore, he said there were better, more proven technologies available--2D bar codes, for instance--that would enable countries to meet the Oct. 26, 2005, deadline for issuing biometric passports mandated by Sensenbrenner's Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. The lawmaker said the act does not require the specific use of RFID to store biometric data on passport bearers. He also blasted the International Civil Aviation Organization for approving the use of RFID instead of a proven technology. RFID chips, which can be read by scanners within a few feet, have generated concern over the potential for privacy infringement; one worry is that RFID-outfitted passports can be scanned without the bearer's knowledge by properly equipped parties that may or may not be authorized to do so. Many countries are doubtful they can meet the October 2005 deadline because the RFID technology and readers are still being tested, and interoperability tests have revealed problems with reliable and secure chip-reading. At ACM's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference last month, Frank Moss said RFID chips were favored because they could hold more information than a bar code or magnetic strip, and allow swift movement through border crossings by being contactless. The U.S. State Department has decided that American passports will use a digital photo as the sole biometric identifier on passports, while the European Union has mandated the inclusion of both photos and fingerprints.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Memory Mimic Aids Reading"
    Technology Research News (05/11/05); Patch, Kimberly

    Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) scientists have developed software that mimics the human brain's mechanism for modeling words to expedite the process of skimming or reading through digitized text. ScentHighlights helps ease the cognitive burden of finding what a user is looking for by highlighting portions of text relating to a series of user-supplied topics of interest. "Users indicate their topics of interest by some method--user profile, search keywords, clicking on words or index entries," says PARC researcher Ed Chi. The system adds related topics to the mix, and from them extracts a list of possibly relevant keywords; sentences containing keywords are highlighted in yellow, and then user search terms are highlighted in pastels and related keywords in gray. Studies demonstrated that people who used ScentHighlights instead of poring through a paper book performed information-finding tasks faster, and the next phase is to learn how the software changes the user's eye movements through eye tracking analysis. ScentHighlights can interoperate with ScentIndex, a tool that enables users to query the index of an electronic book to retrieve a page of conceptually related index entries. The research, which was partly funded by the Advanced Research Development Agency, was detailed at the Intelligent User Interfaces Conference 2005 in January. Chi says the ScentHighlights experiments fit into a new category of human-computer interface research whose goal is to understand human behavior as it relates to a scientific theory, and then apply that theory to the improvement of user interfaces.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Guarding Information"
    Public CIO (05/05); Peterson, Shane

    In the end, the burden of improving U.S. cybersecurity falls on the shoulders of policy makers, says presidential cybersecurity adviser Eugene Spafford, who chairs ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee and runs the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University. Spafford says government agencies' cybersecurity is undermined by reactive security frameworks and lax operational and physical security. Commercial off-the-shelf technology, while being cheaper, often adds unnecessary features and options that require patches later. Spafford also says government agencies need to change their mindset about winning citizens' trust by proactively protecting privacy even if it means extra cost; citizens need to think government is actively working to help them rather than only avoiding error. Government leaders and policy makers are more at fault than agency heads, because roles are ill-defined and tools are not being provided. Leaders are also fixated on terrorist threats in a way that ignores lesser threats such as identity theft. If policy addresses everyday fraud and cybersecurity threats, it will also effectively fight terrorism. Spafford says the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee is preparing a report that calls for more basic research into cybersecurity. He notes that although the Department of Homeland Security has more than $1 billion for research and development, it only devotes $18 million of that amount to cybersecurity. Similarly, there needs to be more investment in cybersecurity education since the United States graduates less than 100 people each year with a Ph.D. in cybersecurity. The U.S. government should spend money developing fundamentally secure IT rather than relying on commercial products that treat security as an add-on component.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    For information on USACM, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm

  • "Patent Litigation Worries Tech Industry"
    United Press International (05/02/05)

    Government and tech industry representatives urged legislators to institute patent system reforms at a recent hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Intellectual Property subcommittee. Reforms are needed as a way to rein in "patent trolls" that obtain patent rights and sue other companies for infringement, giving rise of fears of injunctions that ban the sale of products with a patented component, although the patent trolls themselves are neither inventors nor manufacturers. University of California, Berkeley, law professor Robert Merges said any reforms should be carefully examined by Congress so that these exploiters can be corralled without putting legitimate companies at a disadvantage. Business Software Alliance chief patent counsel David Simon offered legislative solutions to keep disruptions caused by patent litigation to a minimum, including congressional refusal to impose triple punitive damages unless there is clear proof of willful infringement, and congressionally mandated court evaluation of damages based on the value of the patented element instead of the entire product. American Intellectual Property Law Association executive director Michael Kirk recommended the limitation or elimination of "subjective elements in patent litigation" centering on an inventor's mental state when applying for the patent, such as willful infringement, best mode disclosure, and inequitable conduct. DEKA Research and Development President Dean Kamen warned that smaller, independent inventors could be ill-served by some of the proposed reforms, and said the consequences could be "catastrophic" if the burden of proof is reversed to acquire a permanent injunction. "Parties may be less likely to settle disputes if money is the only risk or penalty that party would face for trampling on the valuable property rights of others...[and] may discourage parties from settling their disputes, thus prolonging and increasing the cost of litigation," he said.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "A Bandwidth Breakthrough Hints at a Future Beyond Wi-Fi"
    New York Times (05/04/05) P. E5; Markoff, John

    The FCC broke an ultrawideband (UWB) standards deadlock last March between two competing industry groups, ensuring products will appear on the market by early next year. UWB is seen as the third wave of wireless technology because of its speed and the way in which it transmits data by sharing radio spectrum with existing wireless applications; instead of requiring a dedicated band, UWB devices utilize a range of spectrum and send signals at low power so as not to cause interference with other wireless devices. UWB can transmit data more than five faster than Wi-Fi and is suitable for carrying multiple simultaneous media streams, whereas Wi-Fi systems would only be able to handle a single high-definition TV stream, for instance. The FCC decision resolved the standards issue between the WiMedia Alliance and the UWB Forum, and means UWB will likely be adopted faster than Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, says venture capitalist Bill Tai. He says UWB will break down the remaining barriers between home electronics and PCs. TZero Technologies CEO Rajeev Krishnamoorthy, who helped build the first Agere Systems Wi-Fi chips in the 1990s, says UWB enables the development of all-encompassing wireless home networks, where a home's various electronic devices are all simultaneously interconnected. He says, "This is obvious, everyone can see the potential." Laurence Milstein, a professor at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Wireless Communications, warns that UWB technologies will have to be very careful about interference or wireless data "traffic jams" will negate the technology. He says, "The original logic of UWB is that you spread over wide frequency and if you transmit at low enough power then you won't interfere with other users."
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "USB Ready to Ride the Wireless Wave"
    TechNewsWorld (05/03/05); Korzeniowski, Paul

    Numerous devices that support wireless Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections to simplify the installation and maintenance of computer peripherals are expected by year's end. "Vendors would like to drive down the cost of wireless peripheral communications by moving to a standard way of connecting them," says analyst Phil Solis. The Wireless USB Promoter Group vendor consortium was organized to meet this challenge by modifying the ultrawideband (UWB) standard to support peripheral communications; wireless USB links are less secure than UWB links as a result. To guard against identity theft, wireless USB facilitates user ID authentication by having a computer and a peripheral request and check for unique identifiers, followed by the establishment of a private encrypted connection using the 126-bit Advanced Encryption Standard protocol. The Wireless USB Promoter Group disclosed a draft version of their wireless USB standard last November; finalization is expected this summer, followed by the rollout of the first series of wireless USB-enabled products shortly thereafter. Dongles for laptops are expected to be the first products available, followed by keyboards and mice, storage systems, and consumer devices. The first wave of products will be expensive so that vendors can recoup part of their investment, which means that end user interest in wireless USB will get off to a slow start. Once wireless USB links are bundled into desktop computers, interest is projected to pick up.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Global Poker Game for the Internet Goes On"
    Register (UK) (05/03/05); McCarthy, Kieren

    The leaders of Centr--an organization representative of many of the world's Internet registries--and ICANN have been engaged in a heated war of words over several issues affecting Internet governance. Meanwhile, the United Nations is assessing the future of ICANN, with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) lining up to possibly take over ICANN's governing role. Centr Chairman Paul Kane recently sent a letter to ICANN in response to a letter Centr had received from ICANN vice president Paul Verhoef, in which Verhoef chastised Kane for making comments about ICANN that he claims were a "misrepresentation of the realities at hand." In response, Kane's letter accuses ICANN of stumbling on three counts: trying to exert control over other countries, running the Internet's addressing service too slowly, and failing to properly set up a supporting organization for other countries. Kane says ICANN's alleged attempts to control other countries have already driven Poland and Switzerland to sign up with the ITU, though ICANN disputes this claim. Meanwhile, Kane has responded to ICANN's refusal to admit to the slow service associated with the IANA function by citing seven incidents in which IANA failed to serve Centr members in a timely fashion. Finally, Kane criticizes ICANN for only getting 15 percent of countries to sign on to ccNSO, the supporting organization it created. "If the changes are not made to the current process, I am afraid the perceived risks for ccTLDs will almost certainly outweigh the perceived benefits" of joining ccNSO, Kane wrote in his letter.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Innovation in Process: Plugging Together Business Software May Soon Be Painless"
    Financial Times (05/04/05) P. 11; Waters, Richard

    The largest software vendors are preparing to integrate the heterogeneous IT environment left over from the 1990s surge in technology spending. Services-oriented architecture (SOA) promises to tie together departmental silos and dramatically change the way businesses operate; in the process, companies stand to save money on IT maintenance and focus more on core competencies. Getting from here to there, however, will be an arduous journey that most companies will not fully embark upon until 2010, says AMR analyst Bruce Richardson. Vendors are now positioning themselves for SOA by agreeing on standardized technology such as Web services, and rewriting their software codebases. The move to SOA is accompanied by software vendors' attempt to build out a more complete package of corporate software, an effort some have dubbed the "stack wars" for clashes over key components to the software stack. Oracle co-President Chuck Phillips is skeptical of SOA claims and says it will not bring tighter integration than what is possible within individual software stacks. Other experts note that SOA does not require a replacement of businesses' main information engines but will instead entail an incremental series of upgrades; also, SOA technology is standards based, which means companies should have more leverage over vendors. But IBM's Danny Sabbah says close partnerships between companies and vendors will create a stable IT environment for independent developers to build upon, similar to how Microsoft's PC environment and the Internet spurred development booms.

  • "'Tags' Ease Sifting of Digital Data"
    Associated Press (05/02/05); Jesdanun, Anick

    "Tagging" digital photos and other electronic documents with descriptions of content simplifies the organization and management of digital archives whose volume is increasing exponentially, and the technique could potentially transform the discovery and tracking of information. Tagging service startups include Flickr, which offers individual photo tagging by customers and their friends; del.icio.us, where Web links are tagged and shared; Technorati, a blog search engine that expedites the retrieval of tagged Web journals; and consumating.com for tagging dating profiles. Technorati founder David Sifry says tagging helps people categorize content for their own edification. But he adds, "I can take advantage of the fact that you and hundreds and thousands of people have also tagged the things" for themselves. University of Maryland human-computer interaction expert Ben Schneiderman says tagging relies on the mining of collective human wisdom rather than computer algorithms to facilitate the search for information. Geneva Henry with Rice University's Digital Library Initiative says tagging has disadvantages, using classifications for a common pet as an example. "If one group decides we're going to call them 'canine,' another 'dog,' another 'puppies,'...when someone goes to search for what they call the dog, they are not going to pick up everybody's tagged instances," she remarks. Engineers are developing better tools to address this issue, but a thornier problem will be the exploitation of tagging to carry advertisements once the method picks up sufficient momentum.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Scaling Up Productivity in Scale-Out Clusters"
    HPC Wire (04/29/05) Vol. 14, No. 17; Curns, Tim

    High-performance computing (HPC) technology has matured to the point where the focus is no longer on performance but rather productivity, says Hewlett-Packard high performance computing CTO Scott McClellan in an interview. Clustered supercomputers are growing quickly because of technological factors, such as improving interconnect, server, and high-speed parallel I/O architecture technology. The scalable nature of clusters and the insatiable demand from users means clustered supercomputers are becoming more popular in every vertical sector, although some applications are not as well suited to clusters. On the economic side, single machines with monolithic attributes are often overbuilt for most applications and therefore do not sell in profitable volumes, which translates into reduced research and development, since the investment brings more returns elsewhere. McClellan says software is also becoming a more important factor for clusters, especially in terms of providing more efficient parallel programming models, administrative tools, fault tolerance, and automation. Also, clusters will increasingly be deployed alongside mainstream computing systems and share the same security management policies, for example. The focus of much of these developments is improved productivity, McClellan emphasizes, while another aspect of clusters' popularity is better understanding about how to quickly deploy these systems and deal with density issues in the data center. HP is able to achieve 76 percent utilization with large, integrated solutions on the first day, and more than 90 percent utilization within 30 days, he says; also, HP has developed data center modeling technology that helps optimize air flow and has saved more than 25 percent in cooling costs for HP's own data centers.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "A Whole New World...Shining, Shimmering, Splendid"
    IT World Canada (04/29/05); Reid, Rebecca

    The Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) is home to the Landmark Graphics Visualization Laboratory, a $20 million facility that features a domed IMAX theater where 3D images are back-projected onto a transmissive screen. Viewers wear LCD Shutter Glasses to get the full three-dimensional effect, and see images in full color instead of anaglyphic stereo, says Tony Kocurko with MUN's Department of Earth Sciences. The lab can render a single scene for projection with a series of independent, standalone PCs. The left, right, and center images are rendered by one PC each, and each image is transmitted by a separate projector; the graphic signals are transformed into a standard format, and the images are then combined into one seamless image, according to Kocurko. The right projector's display of images for the right eye triggers infrared transmitters that send signals to the goggles to shutter the left lens, and then the left projector displays an image for the left eye, causing the right lens to shut off. This happens 96 times a second to produce an uninterrupted 3D image for the viewer, explains Kocurko. The lab will be chiefly used to run simulations and produce models of oil wells, while the U.S. National Library of Medicine has arranged for the MUN facility to render a 3D anatomical representation of the different sexes for its Visible Human Project.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Augmenting the Animal Kingdom"
    Wired News (05/03/05); Sandhana, Lakshmi

    Some theorists champion the idea of enhancing animals with technology to increase their chances of surviving, leading happy lives, or even boosting their intelligence. But there are also scientists who oppose such ideas on ethical grounds. One supporter of technological animal enhancement is James Auger, author of "Augmented Animals," who believes that augmentation could benefit domesticated animals. Captive birds, for example, could lead fuller lives in cages built with aerodynamic testing technology that give the illusion of long-distance flight, while dogs and other animals with a keen sense of smell could filter out undesirable scents with odor respirators. David Pearce, associate editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology, reasons that smart microchips implanted within the pleasure centers of livestock and other factory-farmed animals could keep those animals in a state of bliss, completely oblivious to their miserable surroundings. Some scientists contend that giving animals such as apes, dolphins, and elephants the means to enhance their intelligence and communicative abilities is a moral obligation. "Once they are sufficiently enhanced, they can make decisions for themselves, including removing their augmentation," argues Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies executive director Dr. James Hughes.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "BitTorrent as Friend, Not Foe"
    CNN (04/30/05); Crawford, Krysten

    Despite Hollywood's adversarial attitude toward peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, ICANN Chairman Vinton Cerf says there is "serious" interest among Hollywood producers to distribute movies and other content online with BitTorrent P2P software. The more people who download a file with BitTorrent, the faster the downloading process goes. The odds appear to be stacked against the movie industry, with CacheLogic estimating that BitTorrent usage levels--which account for about 50 percent of all P2P traffic--are holding steady even with Hollywood's crackdown on P2P users. Analyst Michael Goodman and other industry observers believe Hollywood must eventually adopt BitTorrent or a similar technology. "Peer-to-peer networks are here to stay and that begs the question, 'How do you live and work with them rather than let them be a source of piracy?'" says Goodman. Linux operating system developer Linspire employs BitTorrent to distribute products and reduce the strain on company servers, and CEO Kevin Carmony says this amounts to savings of roughly $20,000 a month. "We love it and customers love it because it's a faster download," he says. Kontiki, which is similar to BitTorrent in that it enables users to share idle bandwidth on their computers and servers, is the platform for the recently launched Open Media Network site for freely released TV shows and other content, as well as a P2P network for accessing all BBC programs without cost.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "A Software Framework for Automated Negotiation"
    University of Southampton (ECS) (04/29/05); Bartolini, Claudio; Preist, Chris; Jennings, Nicholas R.

    Software agents cannot automatically negotiate with each other without a common negotiation mechanism that indicates what possible actions each party can follow at any given time, when negotiation ends, and the resulting agreements' framework. The authors propose a generic automated negotiation framework that allows a mechanism to be formalized and explicit in its entirety as an alternative to WS-Agreement and the Global Grid Forum's FIPA. They detail a taxonomy of declarative rules that can be employed to compile a broad spectrum of negotiation mechanisms fairly and methodically, as well as a simple interaction protocol that upholds any mechanism captured using those rules. This approach is advantageous because it facilitates a more modular and explicit representation of negotiation than existing strategies; simplifies software agent design and deployment and lowers the likelihood of unplanned incorrect behavior; and enables an agent to define its behavior and strategy by reasoning over the rules specifying the negotiation mechanism. The authors also describe a software architecture for enabling effective agent participation in negotiations outlined by the taxonomy and protocol, and an OWL-Lite-based language for expressing the negotiation template and proposals. The proposed framework assigns the implementation of negotiated host functionality to an agent tasked with assessing negotiation rules and taking appropriate action by coordinating sub-agents charged with enforcing the various rules of negotiation, including admission, updating status and informing participants, negotiation lifecycle, and agreement formation.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Hooked on Photonics"
    Network World (05/02/05) Vol. 22, No. 17, P. 1; Schurr, Amy

    BBN Technologies principal scientist Chip Elliott says his team has assembled a very secure, 12-mile-long test network of quantum cryptography systems that runs under the streets of Boston and Cambridge. Quantum cryptography, which uses single photons of light to distribute encryption/decryption keys, is considered foolproof because the very act of eavesdropping on the network disrupts the data flow and tips off administrators. The 10-node BBN network encrypts regular Internet traffic such as Web pages and email, and consists of two sub-networks: One distributes quantum keys and the other transmits the encrypted traffic. The network's two oldest nodes employ phase-modulated cryptography, while some of the other nodes use entanglement key distribution. BBN is also experimenting with wireless quantum key distribution via free-space quantum cryptography. Elliott plans to boost the number of network nodes and increase speeds exponentially from the current peak rate of 5 Mbps. Another challenge Elliott wants to meet is the creation of the first quantum cryptography eavesdropping mechanism. The government is likely to be the initial beneficiary of BBN's research, given the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's stake in the project; but Elliott expects the deployment of quantum cryptography by financial firms within a few years and by businesses in general within half a decade.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Patents: Cuffing Innovation?"
    Electronic Design (04/28/05) Vol. 53, No. 9, P. 49; Schneiderman, Ron

    Forrester Research consultant Navi Radjou says patents are a critical incentive for technological advancement, but acknowledges that they can also impede innovation if they stifle the creativity of others; defining an invention's patentability is therefore a major challenge. Though patents filed by European researchers have increased at an annual rate of 10 percent since the late 1990s, fewer than 10 percent of those patents have commercial value and less than 1 percent have seminal value, according to a survey sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program. Radjou notes that IBM and other firms are tapping more outside partners for intellectual property and licensing, or sometimes even giving away their IP to third parties, a practice Forrester calls "innovation networking." Radjou says customers, rivals, and regulations are pressuring industry leaders to supplant their inflexible innovation strategy with "a fluid market ecosystem that matches global demand for innovation with worldwide supply." Accomplishing this typically depends on the creation of new products around a technical standard, but Venable IP patent attorney Ralph Albrecht says many people are attempting to develop proprietary technology and get it ratified as an industry standard. The threat of patent lawsuits hanging like a pall over companies developing emerging-market technologies such as Wi-Fi has brought the patent pooling and patent trolling business models to the fore: The former model involves companies jointly licensing each other's patents to avoid infringement lawsuits, and the latter is simply the acquisition of patents for licensing. Another contributor to the current patenting quagmire is the patent process itself, which is coordinated by an understaffed, underfunded office run by underpaid, overworked employees, leading to a massive backlog of patent applications awaiting approval.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "A Call to Arms"
    ACM Queue (04/05) Vol. 3, No. 3, P. 30; Gray, Jim; Compton, Mark

    Jim Gray with Microsoft's Bay Area Research Group and Mark Compton of Hired Gun Communications write that database architecture is undergoing a reevaluation as a consequence of an unending tide of information inundating people and organizations. Data and algorithms are being brought together through the integration of persistent, portable programming languages into database systems. Emerging is an extensible object-relational database system where object sets are manipulated through the use of non-procedural relational operators. The transition of database systems to Web services carries major ramifications for application architecture. Gray and Compton note that a major challenge involves structuring workflows, and they expect research in this area to yield definite design patterns that will require characterization. The authors say the most immediate research challenges focus on demand for improved data mining algorithms and better methods for determining probabilistic and approximate answers; other challenges identified by Gray and Compton include the development of a semi-structured object database, historically aware stream processing, keeping database subscribers updated, and minimizing query costs. The authors write that main-memory databases are finally ready for prime time, while the emergence of ubiquitous smart devices requires self-managing, self-organizing, and self-repairing database systems. Gray and Compton conclude that "we still have plenty of work ahead to create distributed data stores robust enough to ensure that information never gets lost and queries are always handled with some modicum of efficiency."
    Click Here to View Full Article