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


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Volume 7, Issue 853:  Wednesday, October 12, 2005

  • "Study Shows Software Makers Supply Tools to Censor Web"
    New York Times (10/12/05) P. C6; Zeller Jr., Tom

    The OpenNet Initiative has recently issued a report detailing the supply of filtering software programs by Western technology companies to autocratic governments that use them to censor content on the Web. The report identifies Myanmar, China, Iran, and Singapore, among others, as recipients of technology used to shield their citizens from material on the open Web. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Cisco have all been criticized in the past for their dealings with the Chinese government. Myanmar's Web regulations prohibit the posting of "any writings directly or indirectly detrimental to the current policies" of the state. The OpenNet researchers enlisted the aid of an anonymous volunteer and used network interrogation tools to gauge the accessibility of different sites in Myanmar. Hotmail and other sites offering free email were blocked routinely, as were most sites containing political information about the country. Email was only available through two sites with official approval, both of which could be easily monitored. As filtering technologies become more sophisticated, they have been in increasing demand by repressive governments. The OpenNet report suggests that Myanmar has recently adopted a proprietary filtering system supplied by Fortinet, in favor of the open source technology it had been using in the past. Fortinet maintains that it is operating within the bounds of the law, and does not engage in business with countries under U.S. embargo or sanctions, as Myanmar has been for some time. OpenNet maintains its concern that technology companies such as Fortinet are profiting from censorship abroad.
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  • "Yahoo Aims to Be Research Powerhouse"
    Technology Review (10/12/05); Roush, Wade

    In the sparring match that has pitted Google, Yahoo, and MSN against each other for dominance in the search industry, Yahoo has fallen behind in developing new technology. Both Google and Microsoft have embedded research into the core of their operations, but it had never been a priority with Yahoo until recently. Yahoo has enlisted Prabhakar Raghavan, the former CTO of Verity, to head up its research operations, and he has successfully courted top developers, such as Andrew Tomkins, formerly of IBM fame. Despite Raghavan's recruiting efforts, some analysts caution that it often takes years for a research initiative to have a discernable impact on the market. Yahoo's research department splits its focus among five principal areas. Search and retrieval will involve an assessment of the adversarial relationship between search engines and spammers with the hope, according to Raghavan, of staying two steps ahead of the spammers. Yahoo is also working on data mining and machine learning, such as its Mindset project that tags search results, allowing users to customize them, showcasing editorial or commercial content. The branch of research concerning user interfaces and user experiences will use wireless protocols such as Bluetooth to locate friends and prospective contacts. While that research facet seeks to link the millions or billions of computer users around the world through some measure of commonality, utility computing seeks to unify the hardware throughout the world into one, collective mainframe, and eventually span from the PC into the cell phone handset. Finally, the research department seeks to harness microeconomic theory to offer effective incentives to users of social media applications such as Flickr.
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  • "Silicon Valley Grows Up"
    USA Today (10/12/05) P. B1; Kessler, Michelle

    The slowing rate of corporate spending and the plateau that venture-capital investment and tech employment have reached foreshadow a more mature, subdued IT industry that had long been characterized by meteoric growth and precipitous decline. As the industry evolves, many tech companies are consolidating and pursuing new avenues of business that are often less profitable departures from their core focus, but are nonetheless necessary to survive. IT, like many maturing industries, appears to be trading in some of its soaring profitability in favor of greater stability. While much of the technology market can be safely classified as mature, certain players still boast strong growth potential, such as Google in the search niche and Apple with its popular iPod. Corporate and PC software have backed away from double-digit growth rates as most businesses and individuals have already invested in most of the infrastructure they need. In response to slowing growth rates, many companies are sinking greater sums of money into acquiring smaller organizations, leading to an overall consolidation of the market. Other companies, such as Hewlett-Packard and Sun, have been reorganizing internally. Others are pursuing new markets, such as Cisco, which has recently set its sights on wireless networking in homes and small offices, in a departure from its prior focus on selling equipment to large businesses and telephone companies. The new era of accountability and international competition makes it unlikely that the tech industry will revisit the days of the dot-com bubble, though many believe that the more stable marketplace that is emerging will be strong and self-sustaining for the foreseeable future.
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  • "Location Tracking--for People, Products, Places--Is Fast Coming Into Its Own"
    Boston Globe (10/10/05) P. F1; Caffrey, Andrew

    After having long failed to realize their potential, location tracking technologies are venturing into the mainstream in a variety of arenas, including college campuses and elder care facilities. Falling costs have led to the pervasiveness of GPS chipsets and other similar technologies in mobile devices. The widespread consumer embrace of cell phones and other portable devices with tracking technologies has raised concern among privacy advocates, however, who warn against unauthorized spying and spamming. Many companies that have already ventured into the device tracking market are looking at new avenues for expansion, such as LoJack, which is exploring a similar application of its system that tracks stolen cars to monitor Alzheimer's patients. LoJack has appealed to the FCC for permission to use the same public safety radio frequency for its Alzheimer's application that it uses for tracking stolen cars. RFID tags are another tracking method enjoying increasing popularity, particularly in hospitals to observe the movements of patients and doctors. RFID tags could streamline the care process, as they could alert hospital personnel to begin preparing discharge papers as soon as a patient leaves surgery. Applying the tags to doctors could help locate the nearest specialist to a patient in need, or prompt medical equipment to display information relevant to a given doctor as soon as he walks into the room, such as a patient's vital signs. Students at the Illinois Institute of Technology are developing a model of a Segway scooter that will be both GPS- and Wi-Fi-enabled to provide an automated tour of the campus. As the potential applications multiply, developers realize that the key to widespread adoption of tracking technology will be bringing the costs down.
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  • "High-Tech Consortium Seeks Supercharged Wi-Fi Networks"
    Wall Street Journal (10/11/05) P. B3; Clark, Don; Wilke, John

    The Enhanced Wireless Consortium, a group of 27 tech companies, has proposed a method of increasing Wi-Fi connection speeds to over 200 MB. The proposal is the latest in the wireless industry to attract the attention of antitrust advocates, as well as the ire of the consortium's competitors. Previous proposals before the IEEE have not had broad enough support to achieve the longstanding goal of supercharging Wi-Fi connections to meet the growing requirements of multimedia applications, but some members of the consortium have vowed to create products based on the standard whether the IEEE adopts it or not. Intel, Broadcom, Marvel Technology Group, and Atheros Communications are all members, and comprise more than 80 percent of the industry's Wi-Fi chip makers, a coalition that rivals contend represents a virtual monopoly, though the four companies insist that their goal is to produce technology that is of the greatest benefit for the consumer. With many significant players in the industry withholding support, criticizing the consortium as proprietary, the IEEE decision could be pivotal in shaping the development of the market. The IEEE is expected to decide on a standard by November, which would not likely see implementation in a new generation of products until 2006 or 2007.
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  • "On the Road to Networked Vehicles"
    EE Times (10/10/05); Hammerschmidt, Christoph

    At the recent Congress on Electronic Systems for Vehicles in Germany, the focus was on innovation in areas such as electronic braking and steering systems, as well as new hybrid drives. New technologies, such as an air-conditioning system activated by cell phone, would demand considerable onboard storage for electrical energy. The safety focus of vehicle electronics has shifted from mitigating the effects of an accident to preventing accidents from occurring in the first place, as evidenced by such technologies as lane departure warning systems and braking assistance systems. More sophisticated approaches include image processing systems that detect obstacles, or a 5.9-GHz communication platform to support collision-avoidance radio connections placed at intersections. In the event of an accident, the communication channel would broadcast the accident location to the closest police station. Integration with a vehicle user interface would be easier for portable communication devices if they contained a terminal operation mode. WLAN communication links also have a broad range of applications in vehicles, as they could be used to transmit information to a repair shop during a tune-up, or download music based on the driver's preferences. Linking vehicles to traffic management infrastructure could alert motorists to traffic reports, or guide them toward the nearest available parking space. While these technologies can expect to enjoy the most use in Europe, and particularly in Germany, the WLAN standard must be adapted in order to interface with vehicles and meet the required standards of safety.
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  • "Road to Secure US Drivers' Licenses Looks Chaotic"
    Reuters (10/10/05); Elsner, Alan

    The passage of the Real ID Act last May mandated that a secure digital driver's license system be in place by 2008, though there are concerns that such a system could entail massive costs and lead to unforeseen chaos. Under the legislation, licenses would have to include anticounterfeiting measures, a digital photo, and be readable by machines. In issuing the new licenses, states would have to verify all supporting documents, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards through linked databases, as well as ensure that the person seeking the license is in the country legally. The impetus for the bill came from the revelation that the 9/11 hijackers used fake licenses to board the planes, as well as the growing problem of identity theft. States have voiced concern that they will have to raise the fees for driver's licenses to cover the new requirements, but proponents of the Real ID Act maintain that it could save millions of dollars in fraud from identity theft. The Act has come under fire from immigration advocacy groups, as well as civil liberty and privacy organizations who plan to stymie its implementation through legislation or widespread grass roots disapproval.
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    For more on the Real ID Act, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm

  • "Stopping a Computer Revolt"
    Oregonian (10/12/05); Finken, Dee Anne

    Washington State University researcher Scott Wallace has recently been recognized for his work on the practical implications of artificial intelligence. While most artificial intelligence applications have yet to live up to the far-flung world depicted in movies, the field is building on its voice-recognition technologies to show promise in automating some labor-intensive jobs, such as the retrieval of biotech or medical data. Those areas are plagued by inordinate amounts of data that require considerable human effort to sift through, which has sparked much of the interest in automated systems to lighten the load. Wallace's research explores ways to provide an artificial intelligent agent with security provisions to ensure it faithfully executes its assigned task, whether that is to conduct Internet research or fly a jet. Wallace seeks to bridge the "trust divide"--the disparity between what an agent is supposed to do and what it actually does--that is a central impediment to the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence technology.
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  • "National Science Foundation Ramps Up Studies of Nanotechnology's Social Implications"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (10/10/05); Brainard, Jeffrey

    Critics have called on the National Science Foundation to contribute more federal dollars to studying the social implications of nanotechnology, and the organization has responded by awarding $6.2 million to Arizona State University at Tempe and $5 million to the University of California at Santa Barbara over five years. Researchers at Arizona State will look into issues such as privacy, security, and the impact on the human body, while scientists at Santa Barbara will focus on society's view of the potential risks of nanotechnology. The NSF has also handed out smaller awards to the University of South Carolina and Harvard University, which will expand research already supported by the agency. Compared to the amount of money the federal government has spent developing nanotechnology, relatively little has been spent to study how the technology is likely to impact society. This year, the federal government has spent $1 billion on developing nanotechnology. Even advocates of the technology say its social implications need to be studied more. They say a fear of nanotechnology could cause the public to reject it, similar to the way in which some people in Europe are opposed to food that comes from genetically modified crops.
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  • "IBM Research Turns 60"
    CNet (10/11/05); Kanellos, Michael

    IBM Research marks it 60th anniversary Tuesday with a celebration at the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y. Paul Horn, senior vice president of research, Nick D'Onofrio, executive vice president of innovation and technology, Bob Dennard, inventor of the DRAM cell, and Fred Brooks from the University of North Carolina will all speak at the event honoring IBM's breakthroughs in computer science, physics, and semiconductor design over the years. IBM continues to evolve and is focusing more on social sciences, and looks considerably different than it did in the 1970s when it was using TV monitors as computer displays and developing the first speech-recognition application for computers. "I don't think we [the United States] are in a position at our current levels of investment in education to control or even have a strong influence on how innovation develops," says Chris Murray, manager of nanoscale materials and devices. Although the company is involved in nanotechnology research, the focus on hardware has given way to interest in services and software for solving business process problems such as supply chain management, application integration, and transactional inefficiencies. "We estimate that business process transactional services could become a half a trillion dollar market in the next couple of years, and the whole IT industry itself is only $1.2 trillion," says Horn.
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  • "Champions of Web 2.0 See a Shift to More Participation by the Public"
    Boston Globe (10/10/05) P. F1; Kirsner, Scott

    The Web 2.0 Conference held last week in San Francisco was predicated on the notion that the Internet as we know it is on the verge of a major jump off, similar to that experienced in the late 1990s. Conference organizers John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly believe the new era of the Web will be marked by easier, more universal participation by its community of users. Blogs, wikis, and content-tagging initiatives are all signposts of the new face of the Web. Participation in the new Web is facilitated by easy access to inexpensive infrastructure. The Web 2.0 will be largely consumer-driven, as evidenced by sites such as Upcoming.org and Flickr.com, which offer information on upcoming events and shared photos, respectively. New applications targeting the corporate community are geared for the rank-and-file employees, as software developers have realized that a program's success must be measured by its widespread popularity, rather than the top-down model where executives sink a large investment into a program and hope their employees will embrace it. O'Reilly expressed concern that the term Web 2.0 could become overused to the point of creating a climate of hype similar to the one that characterized the industry 10 years ago.
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  • "Net Power Struggle Nears Climax"
    BBC News (10/11/05); Hermida, Alfred

    The battle over control of the Internet is threatening to eclipse all other issues pertaining to Internet technology at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which is set to take place next month in Tunisia. Viviane Reding, the European commissioner in charge of Internet issues, is warning of the potentially "dangerous" situation stemming from the feud between the United States, which is strongly connected to current Internet governance through ICANN, and developing countries that are calling for an international governing body for Internet policy. ICANN's relationship with the U.S. Department of Commerce was originally slated to end by September 2006, but U.S. officials have recently stated that the country would "maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file." Other nations, such as China, Iran, and Brazil, are opposed to the current role of ICANN and the United States. Meanwhile, Reding says Europe advocates a governance model that would include both ICANN and an international forum, or "model of cooperation," in which countries could assert their views on issues concerning the Internet.
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  • "Wi-Fi May Make Cars Smarter"
    Red Herring (10/06/05)

    Vehicles equipped with Wi-Fi systems could become a reality within five years, helping drivers avoid accidents by enabling their cars to communicate with each other on the road. The systems would capitalize on Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) technology, which will be formally unveiled at the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) World Congress next month in San Francisco. The technology could also be used to make automatic payments at toll booths or drive-through restaurants. The focus in the United States has been on avoiding crashes and congestion, which combine to cost $300 billion annually, while the Japanese have been paying more attention to the convenience that automatic payments would offer. As GM envisions it, the Wi-Fi systems would warn drivers about slowed or stopped vehicles in front of them, as well as upcoming accidents or cars that were braking heavily. If an accident was imminent, the car would automatically slow or stop. In addition to warning about approaching red lights, the technology could also update a car's maps and warn about upcoming potholes and speed changes. While the technology is not yet nearing production, privacy advocates are concerned that it could be used to track cars, though automakers maintain that all the technology would be anonymous. In order for the Wi-Fi technology to be effective, it would need to be adopted on a wide scale, and for cars to communicate with each other, automakers would have to establish a standard platform for interoperability. Creating the necessary infrastructure, which is not likely to happen earlier than five or 10 years, will require a close partnership between the auto industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
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  • "Planet-Scale Grid"
    Computerworld (10/10/05) P. 27; Thibodeau, Patrick

    In 2007, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator being assembled near Geneva, will be used to produce unprecedented volumes of data to simulate the conditions of the universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang. To cope with the 10 PB of data expected to be produced annually, scientists are constructing a grid of 100,000 computers at research labs around the world. The central problem they are encountering is centralizing the data in a virtual format that can scale to the necessary magnitude. Developing a grid that can handle the inordinate amount of data will be of great benefit to the scientific community and the business world alike. The European laboratory for particle physics, CERN, is heading up the LHC and grid projects. The backup plan calls for placing two-tenths of the total data at each of the 10 auxiliary centers around the world. Clustered Intel and AMD processors will power the Linux operating systems in the roughly 150 universities and research labs involved in the program. The central challenge to constructing the grid will be to ensure that the more than 1,000 physicists at work on the project around the world will have simultaneous access to the data. The developers are also concerned with the ability of the middleware to support the demands of the grid, as well as ensuring that there is not a single point of failure in the system, which will place a premium on descriptive metadata.
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  • "IETF Effort Promises Fewer Net Failures"
    Network World (10/10/05) Vol. 22, No. 40, P. 1; Greene, Tim; Dubie, Denise

    The IETF is nearing completion on a protocol that seeks to address the problem of misconfigured equipment, which it has identified as the central cause of network breakdowns. The protocol, known as NetConf, could be adopted by the end of the year, and will minimize the programming requirements for automating device configuration, leading ultimately to improved configuration tools and more expedient updates. The protocol seeks to reduce the rate of network failure by removing the human element from the equation, which accounts for some 60 percent of downtime. NetConf employs XML to configure devices and exploit the state and configuration data stored on devices more efficiently. If a standard such as NetConf were to be broadly adopted, configuration management vendors could offer widely applicable tools, which would streamline software development by dispensing with the need for designers to learn multiple formats and protocols. By eliminating the need for experts with a concentration in a given device, businesses could handle repairs more quickly owing to a troubleshooting analysis that anyone could perform. Although the NetConf model has already seen some support in the industry, its widespread implementation will only happen over time, though that process will be accelerated if the IETF adopts the protocol as a standard.
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  • "DARPA Takes Another Look at Improving Machine Learning"
    Military & Aerospace Electronics (09/05) Vol. 16, No. 9, P. 29; Keller, John

    The goal of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Integrated Learning project is to create computer software that can learn by combining knowledge taken from various sources as well as through reasoning. DARPA's intent is to position the software as an enabling technology for inexpensive systems that support military operations such as air-tasking-order planning or computer-aided design processes. The Integrated Learner software must integrate limited observations with general knowledge, subject expertise, reasoning, and responses to what-if questions. It will also possess explicit learning objectives and be able to track the gaps in its knowledge, the knowledge it must obtain, and its areas of conjecture. Analysis, error tolerance, interaction with humans, and information manipulation will also be among the software's abilities. DARPA officials note that different segments of the software can generate different conclusions: In such a scenario, the software will need to find data that validates or invalidates one of those conclusions. Companies that wish to get involved in the Integrated Learning program must submit proposals that specify an integrated architecture for the software, reasoning elements, simulation components, general world knowledge and domain knowledge the software will employ, the human-software interaction mechanism, and evaluation plans and metrics. The program will be split into four year-long phases; right now only the first phase has backing, but industry proposals must take all four phases into account.
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  • "Chip on Your Shoulder"
    Governing (09/05); Perlman, Ellen

    Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology remains a hard sell in the United States regardless of its efficiency, reliability, and simplicity because of its alleged potential for privacy infringement. Yet RFID's possible benefits, which range from the acceleration of tedious chores to better inventory tracking to improved security and convenience, are impossible for governments to ignore. In a recent report, Robert Atkinson with the Public Policy Institute's Technology and New Economy project wrote that "Overblown claims against RFID, in which the technology becomes a magnifying glass into people's personal lives, either overestimate the technology or ignore applicable laws." Stalking or exploiting people by scanning their RFID tags, for instance, would be cumbersome, since active tags must be read from just a few feet away and are impossible to scan through metal, water, or most barriers. Encrypting the devices presents an additional challenge. The RFID tags also boast numbers that are unique to a specific database, and the "stalker" would need access to those databases to exploit any data he acquires. Not all RFID deployments have generated controversy, an example being the Virginia Beach, Va., public library system's efficient, non-intrusive book check-out process; still, Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Kurt Opsahl warns that users' book choices could be limited if fears of privacy infringement spread as the cost of RFID readers goes down. Future applications for RFID technology will be largely dependent on the permissiveness, or lack thereof, of legislation.
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  • "The Power Inside"
    Redmond (10/05); Ward, Keith

    Microsoft Research's (MSR) attraction to researchers lies in its ability to translate their work into features in actual products, which distinguishes it from the academic research community. Much of what comes out of MSR labs may not be immediately obvious, but MSR head Rick Rashid says the facilities focus on developing "fundamental technologies" that wind up in Microsoft products. Among the MSR technologies incorporated into popular products is Cleartype displays for Windows XP; smart tags for Office XP; junk-mail filters, enhanced software piracy protection, and improved cryptography for Office 2003; Digital Ink and handwriting and sketch recognition technologies for the Tablet PC; IP network probing for the Xbox; and a machine learning-based spam filter for the SmartScreen. Roy Levin, who heads MSR's Silicon Valley facility, says marketing pressures have no bearing on researchers' output. MSR is not required to be profitable, which gives researchers the luxury of concentrating exclusively on technology development. Some researchers praise MSR for giving them more freedom and autonomy than academia, and Levin says MSR's environment is designed to enable employees to flex their creative muscles. Deadlines are a fact of life at MSR in the case of the technology transfer process, though Nebojsa Jojic of MSR's Redmond lab describes the process as informal and "mostly about relationships." Rashid notes that the bulk of MSR's growth has been overseas, mainly because of restrictions on the number of foreign researchers and other professionals allowed into the United States on H-1B visas.
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