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Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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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 7, Issue 800:  Monday, June 6, 2005

  • "Apple Plans to Switch From I.B.M. to Intel for Chips"
    New York Times (06/06/05) P. C1; Markoff, John; Lohr, Steve

    Apple CEO Steve Jobs is planning an alliance with Intel that will have future Macintoshes powered by Intel chips in an effort to counter Microsoft and Sony's growing influence in home multimedia. The shift from the IBM and Motorola-developed PowerPC to Intel chips will be a serious engineering challenge, but it is a strategic move that increases Apple's technological standing in the face of new home entertainment products such as the upcoming Xbox 360 from Microsoft, which will use hardware co-developed by IBM and Microsoft; Sony has also formed a partnership with IBM for its game console hardware. Analysts note that IBM was unable to deliver the latest power-saving G5 chip on time for new Apple laptop computers, which now use chips from Motorola spinoff Freescale Semiconductor. IBM has been moving away from the PC industry in recent years and now draws less than 3 percent of its revenues from microelectronics, according to estimates. IBM's business with Apple is an even smaller part of that operation, as chips made for Apple computers make up less than 2 percent of production at IBM's Fishkill, N.Y., fabrication plant. Instead of PC chips, IBM's micro-electronics group today mostly builds specialized chips for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as well as electronics for servers, routers, and cell phones. When Jobs reassumed the helm of Apple in 1997, he migrated the Macintosh operating system to the PowerPC, but it has been reported that Apple kept a parallel operation called Marklar that developed Intel-compatible versions of the operating system. Jobs is expected to make his case for the technology change to software developers at the annual developer conference in San Francisco, a challenge that analyst Charles Wolf says will be the most difficult aspect of the Intel shift.
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  • "BlackBoxVoting Finds Voting Scan Machines Hackable"
    YubaNet.com (06/04/05); Cardinale, Matthew

    Recent findings by e-voting technology expert Bev Harris and BlackBoxVoting.org indicate that Diebold optical scanning machines are susceptible to hacking, which makes them just as big a risk for election fraud as touch-screen voting machines. Harris confirms that her technical specialists uncovered vulnerabilities in both individual machines and the central tabulator used in elections in Leon County, Fla. She says the individual machines have a "built-in" hacking program that allows any election on the poll tapes in the Diebold optical scan system to be hacked; Harris doubts that the program's presence is accidental, and she believes this warrants a congressional probe. "If you can manipulate the poll tape and the central tabulation system, that will be all she wrote for most elections," she says. Harris claims computer expert Harri Hursti has verified that the built-in resides in the memory card of the ballot box on individual machines, which means that votes can be modified. Harris notes that computer science professor Herbert Thompson successfully hacked a central tabulator in less than five minutes during a May 2005 public audit of Leon County's Diebold optical scan system that was witnessed by Reps. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). She says her team proved beyond a doubt that the machines can be hacked while evading detection; they made fake memory cards that told the machines how the results came out, clearly demonstrating that the card was directing the machine instead of vice-versa. Harris also argues that Diebold violated federal law by writing the program in their own computer language instead of standard language.
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    Fore information on ACM's stand on e-voting machines and technology, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Computer Science Losing Students"
    The Lantern (Ohio State University) (06/02/05); Settles, JP

    The dimming job prospects for IT workers has more students avoiding computer science as a major, according to a new study from the Computer Research Association authored by Stuart Zweben, chairman of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University. Zweben found that the number of computer science majors nationwide has declined 32%, from 23,416 students in 2000 to 15,950 in 2004. He says prospective students are aware of the dot-com bust and know the market is filled with out-of-work professionals, but another factor raising unemployment fears is the outsourcing of entry-level jobs to cheap labor overseas. However, OSU computer science lecturer Bonnie Bair says the "IT job market is looking really awesome," and points out that 75% of new science and engineering jobs will be computer-related. Bair says women account for about 10 percent of OSU's computer science enrollment, and notes that their numbers fall faster during hard times. Sophomore computer science major Binaebi Akah, who will be the president of the campus' ACM Women in Computing group, says she is confident she will secure a job in computer graphics after college, and she is not overly concerned about the low number of women in the industry.
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  • "End User: Thumbs Up for Easy Use"
    International Herald Tribune (06/04/05); Shannon, Victoria

    Data delivered to mobile devices is on the rise, as is research on how to visualize and wade through such information easily, as evident by the papers presented at ACM's CHI 2005 conference last April. Microsoft Research sociologist Richard Harper says communication and navigation methodologies for PCs are inapplicable to mobile phones, given the disparity between the devices' screen size. Information relayed via the mobile phone's screen is usually of a more personal, emotional, and private nature, and this carries implications for graphical design. The owner of a phone is more likely to sift through information sent by one person along with an image of that person, but Harper claims smart phones or personal digital assistants cannot support such a level of intimacy. He says people will probably carry two portable devices with them in the future: One will be an always-on gadget for personal communication, while the other will be for office work that is turned off at the end of the workday. A collaborative venture between Microsoft researcher John SanGiovanni and University of Maryland professors seeks a simple technique for absorbing information from mobile phones. The initiative has yielded the prototype LaunchTile software, which splits the mobile screen into quadrants that allow users to access 36 data streams.
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  • "New Hack Cracks 'Secure' Bluetooth Devices"
    New Scientist (06/03/05); Biever, Celeste

    Bluetooth security features no longer have to be deactivated for Bluetooth-enabled devices to be attacked, thanks to a method discovered by Israeli cryptographers. A British cryptographer demonstrated last April that a hacker could hijack Bluetooth devices in secure mode, but only if he is fortuitous enough to catch a pair of devices as they are swapping identity data just before their initial communication; TrustMatta's Chris McNab assures that there is no risk of attack as long as the devices make this exchange in a private place. However, Tel Aviv University's Avishai Wool and Yaniv Shaked have formulated an attack strategy that allows hackers to induce this pairing process whenever they wish: "Our attack makes it possible to crack every communication between two Bluetooth devices, and not only if it is the first communication between those devices," Shaked claims. The pairing process enables the communicating devices to set up the secret "link key" that they then store and employ to encrypt all subsequent exchanges, and the legitimate users must type the same PIN into both devices so that they can arrive at the common link key. The British cryptographer showed that hackers could uncover the link key with a Bluetooth sniffer, but Wool and Shaked have successfully forced pairing by masquerading as one of the devices and sending a message to the other claiming that it forgot the link key. This causes the other device to reject the link key and re-start the pairing process, which the hacker can then exploit.
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  • "New Group Aims to Move Women Into Top IT Research Posts"
    eGov Monitor (06/02/2005)

    One out of three women involved in IT research wants a top-level research job, compared with 22 percent of men, according to the women@CL (Women in the Computer Laboratory) initiative. However, just one woman in 20 is a computing professor, one in eight is a researcher, and one in four is a Ph.D. student. Women@CL, which has the support of organizations such as the British Computer Society, Microsoft, Intel, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has been launched to address the issue, and is offering workshops, mentoring services, and networking events in an effort to help women reach their career goals in research. The initiative is even offering child care grants to mothers who want to participate in research conferences and meetings. "We aim to shatter the frosted glass ceiling that prevents many women from the top of the IT research profession," says campaign director Ursula Martin, computer science professor at London University's Queen Mary College. "Women@CL has been formed to encourage, support, inform, and celebrate women who are or plan to work in computing research or academic leadership in industry and academia."
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    For information on ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "FBI Pushed Ahead With Troubled Software"
    Washington Post (06/06/05) P. A1; Eggen, Dan

    A confidential report to the House Appropriations Committee indicates that the FBI was aware that its $170 million Virtual Case File (VCF) system was highly flawed, but willfully pressed on with a $17 million pilot program last December, even though by then it was obvious that the software would have to be discarded. This was just one of many instances in the course of the VCF's development in which the bureau knowingly passed up the opportunity to terminate the program before incurring significant financial losses, according to the study. The case file management system was part of a massive effort to upgrade the FBI's communications network, and the report signals that some officials noticed problems with the VCF in early 2003, stemming from "contracting and program management oversight;" in December 2003, functional and technical problems were cited when Science Applications International (SAIC) delivered its first batch of software to the bureau. The FBI had spotted 400 problems by March of last year but did not disclose them to the contractor, while an official in the FBI's Cyber Division recommended an independent audit to address "serious concerns" about the project's status. Some officials say the FBI proceeded with the testing phase of the VCF despite recommendations to jettison the software because the bureau felt it had to show something for its efforts. Complaints from SAIC officials about frequent FBI management turnover and design changes were verified by the House investigation. FBI officials recently announced that many of the deficiencies outlined in the report will be addressed through a sweeping reorganization of the bureau, and through the use of the Sentinel program based on off-the-shelf software.
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  • "UB's Supercomputing Center Makes Virtual Traffic Make Sense to the Public"
    LinuxElectrons (06/04/05)

    Visualization software developed by researchers at the Center for Computational Research (CCR) in the University at Buffalo's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences is being used to reconstruct car accidents and simulate traffic in three dimensions. The accident reconstruction package extracts calculations of vehicle speeds, velocities, and other unknown factors from accident data the software translates into 3D animation that can be presented to juries instead of storyboards. "What we do is take the traffic engineering data and present them in an animated, interactive, and realistic fashion so that it's easy for the general public to get a mental picture of what happened," says CCR director and UB Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Russ Miller. The 3D traffic simulation software, known as StreetScenes, was developed as a tool that urban planners and other members of the public can use to visualize how local traffic will be affected by proposed projects in a much more intuitive and immersive way than 2D aerial animations that depict cars as dots. Actual traffic is visualized in StreetScenes, which takes into account realistic traffic volume and speeds based on weather, road conditions, time of day, special events, and other variables. The Federal Highway Administration and the Florida, Rhode Island, New York, and Minnesota transportation departments have expressed interest in the StreetScenes software.
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  • "Japanese Has High Hopes for Robot"
    Associated Press (06/02/05); Kageyama, Yuri

    Fears that Japan's technology leadership is eroding with the growing influence of China and increasingly successful businesses in other Asian countries have spurred the nationwide "super science" effort to cultivate future Japanese tech leaders by providing money for high schools to finance their own tech curricula. The Japanese government will provide Tennoji High School in Osaka a three-year grant of $460,000 to nurture science- and math-adept students, whose talent in these subjects has been on the wane for some time, says Tennoji teacher Hideo Tsuchida. The school offers a course in robotics, and one recent class involved students learning basic programming language to control a Transformer-like robot's movements; the class was a struggle, as neither of the teachers were robotics experts, while the robotics industry representative who attended the class was inexperienced with education and prone to spouting confusing tech lingo. Tennoji teacher Yoshikazu Oonishi is hopeful that students will become more skilled in programming by the end of the school year, so that they have some comprehension of artificial intelligence. The Japan Robot Association expects the Japanese market for next-generation robots to expand to $13.8 billion by the end of the decade and to over $37 billion by 2025. The Japanese super science program has a yearly budget of $12 million that is divided up between 82 high schools, which are building curricula that emphasize solar power, genetics, and rocket engineering, in addition to robotics.
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  • "Making SMART Homes Smarter"
    AzoBuild.com (06/02/05)

    Juan Carlos Augusto with the University of Ulster's School of Computing and Mathematics seeks to further "smart homes" technology through the application of ambient intelligence. He says houses equipped with sensors can detect movement as well as determine its cause, and the information gathered by the technology can be analyzed at a remote location and used to help the house's occupants. For example, monitoring medical issues is essential to people who live by themselves; the technology could spot when elderly residents are in trouble and alert the proper people or authorities, as well as diagnose health problems before they get too serious. In addition, the technology could bolster building security by detecting mysterious movements. Augusto, an artificial intelligence expert, is working on software that can analyze the numerous goings-in picked up by sensors at a remote site. He says, "Individual sensors need to be complemented with software that can have a more holistic view of a given environment at any time as to anticipate potential risks or needs and act accordingly." Augusto says smart homes are "technologically and commercially viable" today, and will become even more advanced as new sensors and more complex designs are developed.
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  • "The Philosophical Case for Expanding the Domain Name Space"
    CircleID (05/31/05); Brown, Gavin

    Currently, TLDs fall into two categories: those that identify a geographic location, such as .uk for the United Kingdom, and those that identify a type of entity, such as .com for commercial organizations. In this opinion piece, CentralNic CIO Gavin Brown suggests that DNS stakeholders take these categories into account and try to keep them intact when considering the introduction of new TLDs. Brown contends that it could be useful to introduce new geographically based TLDs that refer to locations other than countries, since not all countries are homogeneous or strictly defined, and some cities and towns could benefit from more specific namespaces. However, most of the proposals for new domain names are for generic and sponsored TLDs that are supposed to serve sectors that do not sufficiently fall into one of the existing categories, such as .com, .net, and .org. Brown says he does not believe there is much need for new generic TLDs, but he does advocate the expansion of second-level domains that extend the domain namespace without compromising the two primary purposes of TLDs. Brown argues that the case for new generic TLDs is overstated because the great majority of entities are already serviced by existing TLDs. He contends that the domain name space can be expanded without introducing new TLDs-- for example, through the introduction of more "second-level" registry services like .uk.com, .au.com, .eu.org, or .web.com.
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  • "Device Drivers Filled With Flaws, Threaten Security"
    Security Focus (05/26/05); Lemos, Robert

    Although operating system code has improved in recent years, device drivers still have numerous flaws that threaten operating system security. The responsibility of securing device driver code lies primarily with the third-party hardware vendors that create the drivers, but also with Microsoft and the Linux development community. Automated code-checking firm Coverity said an audit of the Linux 2.6.9 kernel code revealed that over 50 percent of the discovered flaws existed in device drivers. Though those flaws may not have been exploitable, they do reflect on the overall quality of code, says Coverity CEO Seth Hallem. Microsoft's Windows software development process includes provisions for checking third-party code shipped with the operating system and the company has an initiative to improve device driver development. The Linux kernel has been consistently audited for security, but the kernel source tree contains huge numbers of outdated device drivers, says Novell software engineering director Crispin Cowan. Of particular concern are drivers with direct memory access such as USB drivers, graphics drivers, and sound drivers, since code launched from those can overwrite system memory. Networking, wireless, and Bluetooth drivers are the only ones that are vulnerable to remote access, however. Open Source Development Labs Linux evangelist Bill Weinberg says driver exploits are also limited by the fact that many of them will simply crash the system.

  • "For the Record"
    Public CIO (05/05) Vol. 2, No. 3, P. 54; Douglas, Merrill

    Government agencies are grappling with an explosion of digital records and a lack of policy and technology standards directed toward those records. Wisconsin CIO Matt Miszewski notes that while digitization has made government processes more efficient, existing records retention policy and thinking remains stuck in paper mode. Many documents remain digital their entire lifecycle and paper documents that still are used are scanned and stored in digital form. There are several technical challenges facing government records management, but leaders are starting to identify best practices and guidelines for storing digital records. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Electronic Records Archive (ERA) program director Ken Thibodeau says agencies must keep migrating electronic records to new storage systems, despite the continued costs of doing so. He says regular advances in storage technology actually make those costs go down each time records are moved to new media. The ERA program is developing records management standards and mechanisms for federal agencies to use in preparation for storage in the National Archives. Another issue is software formats, which may be only partially compatible with future technology. An independent software format is ideal, but otherwise it is important to use widely recognized systems, says National Association of Government Archives and Records Administration (NAGARA) President and Delaware Public Archives director Timothy Slavin. Thibodeau says NARA is investigating a "transfer format" that agencies would use to convert records to an archival standard. A number of states, university archives, and the San Diego Supercomputing Center are also building the Persistent Archives Testbed, which would seek to maintain records over a distributed data grid. This system would free organizations from having to maintain physical media such as DVDs.
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  • "Revitalizing Computing Science Education"
    Computer (05/05) Vol. 38, No. 5, P. 100; Mahmoud, Qusay H.

    Computing science (CS) departments must make their courses more attractive and more reflective of current IT industry trends in order to reverse the decline of student enrollments, writes University of Guelph professor Qusay H. Mahmoud. One of the most discouraging factors for prospective CS students is the legitimization of the offshore outsourcing business model by the emergence of the Internet, but the migration of low-level IT jobs to lower-wage countries can be the catalyst CS departments need to reassess and redefine their programs and curricula. Moreover, the disinterest many students feel toward CS is borne out of several public misconceptions: They assume that current IT job prospects will be unchanged by the time they graduate, and that CS is unchallenging and strictly programming-oriented. Rehabilitating this stereotypical image of CS by increasing public awareness of its applications beyond programming is just one of the things CS departments must do to better equip graduates for the future IT landscape. Other recommended strategies include offering interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs, boosting the enrollment of female students, training high school CS teachers, adding fun to CS courses to attract students of the arts, and moving toward a Bachelor of Arts program. The most central solution is to stimulate interest in CS at a young age, perhaps by holding computing summer camps for children. CS departments should position themselves as an alternative to outsourcing in terms of being a center of innovation, and thus offer a competitive advantage to IT customers.
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  • "Global Technology and Local Patents"
    Information Today (05/05) Vol. 22, No. 5, P. 1; Pike, George H.

    University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor George H. Pike confirms the territoriality of patent law as a result of the global expansion of the Internet and its patented technologies and business methods. He recommends that U.S. patent holders recognize available options to shield their international intellectual property rights. Obtaining patents in several countries is one option, and it may be in the holder's best interest to file the patent application in the foreign country first, since patents overseas are often awarded to the first person who files an application rather than to the first inventor; furthermore, the Multilateral Patent Cooperation Treaty of 1978 permits an international patent application via the filing of a U.S. application. Pike recommends that patent owners carefully weigh a number of factors when considering multinational patents, including the differences between U.S. patent law and international patent laws. Concentrating patent infringement litigation within U.S. courts can also be strategically advantageous to the patent holder, as many Internet-based technologies and processes can be traced to the United States. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) has played a key role in encouraging U.S. companies to market their technologies and products in developing nations by giving U.S. patent holders a fundamental level of commonality in international patent law, limitations on compulsory and restrictive licenses, and increased enforcement and dispute reconciliation. "An Introduction to Patent Law" author Janice Mueller notes that granting a patent can "chill innovation" in the technology covered by the patent by forbidding others to modify that technology. Yet patents' territoriality offers a loophole that could be especially beneficial to the development, transfer, and outsourcing of technology.

  • "Transformational Communications"
    Military & Aerospace Electronics (05/05) Vol. 16, No. 5, P. 26; Keller, John

    The U.S. military is moving ahead with efforts to deploy wireless tactical networks to facilitate the sharing of battlefield knowledge in real time, a concept known as transformational communications. In a shared knowledge environment, troops, ground vehicles, aircraft, sensors, satellites, military leaders, and national command authorities are interconnected via a dependable real-time global digital network. Four central pillars--the Transformational Satellite Communications system (TSAT), the Global Information Grid Bandwidth Expansion (GIG-BE), the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical system (WIN-T), and the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS)--support the platform of transformational communications. TSAT, which is expected to boost deployed military forces' communications capabilities by an order of magnitude, will be an eight-satellite high-speed Internet data network that connects terrestrial data networks and battlefield networks via wideband. The GIG-BE seeks to enhance voice, data, and video communications for strategic intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and command and control data sharing using an optical-fiber mesh network as a ubiquitous common infrastructure. The WIN-T will form the spine of battlefield communications by supporting voice, video, and data applications; validating standards and protocols for "Objective Force" applications and network hosts; and using the most sophisticated communications, vehicles, satellites, and computers. Finally, the JTRS will send and receive voice, video, and data communications among the various U.S. military services and between U.S. forces and their allies using a family of compatible software-programmable tactical radios.
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  • "Identity Crisis"
    Government Executive (05/15/05) Vol. 37, No. 8, P. 74; Harris, Shane

    Moves by the U.S. Transportation and Homeland Security departments to standardize driver's licenses have come under fire by civil libertarians, who allege that such a maneuver might lead to a de facto national ID card that could be used to monitor citizens as well as legal immigrants. Secure ID advocates point to the current ease of obtaining IDs, which allows malicious individuals such as the 9/11 terrorists to move freely throughout the country. Smart Card Alliance executive director Randy Vanderhoof says standard, machine-readable IDs containing basic data (legal residence, Social Security Number, and a biometric identifier) and acquired through a rigorous application process would make bearers more trustworthy, and cards interoperable. State-issued IDs can be modeled after government-issued "smart cards" equipped with chips that store bearers' personal data, thus supporting a common platform that complicates the distribution of counterfeit IDs. States that adopt the federal ID model would be required to incorporate a base of personal data into ID cards or force applicants to provide the same documentation federal card applicants must provide during background checks. Opponents argue that making such cards interoperable would essentially create a national ID system, while questions about how much access the federal government would have to state driver's license data, and the degree of data-sharing between states, remain unanswered. Even secure ID activists admit that standardizing cards would not be a wholly effective terrorism deterrent, although Mark Krikorian with the Center for Information Studies says such a measure would make it more difficult to acquire a driver's license or other state-issued ID, and discourage people afraid of being on authorities' wanted lists from attempting to obtain one.
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