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


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Volume 7, Issue 856:  Wednesday, October 19, 2005

  • "Estonia Pulls off Nationwide Net Voting"
    CNet (10/17/05); Broache, Anne

    Estonia became the first nation to offer voting over the Internet to every citizen in its local elections held last week, though only around 1 percent of the half million votes recorded were cast online. Officials reported no incidents of glitches or attempted hacks. The system uses an electronic identification card that has been required of all Estonians over the age of 15 since 2002. Voters insert their cards into readers hooked up to their computers, and log on to the official voting Web site, where they cast their ballots over an encrypted system after they have been authenticated, and then they verify their choices with their digital signatures. Although the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have all conducted e-voting pilot programs, University of Utah professor Thad Hall believes that Estonia is the first to offer it nationwide. E-voting has had mixed results in the United States, as the first attempt met with Y2K-related bugs in Arizona, but Michigan claimed success with about 50,000 votes cast online in the presidential primaries. Security is the major issue confounding the adoption of e-voting in the United States, though Estonia's comparatively small population of 1.4 million may make it less of a target for hackers.
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    For information about ACM's e-voting activities, please visit www.acm.org/usacm

  • "'4G' Leapfrogs Next-Gen Wireless"
    Wired News (10/18/05); Grebb, Michael

    The integration of software-based system-on-a-chip architectures with "4G" networks is anticipated in the next few years. The goal of 4G technologies is to create fully packet-switched networks optimized for data, and many people think the winning technology will be WiMAX, given the rapid success of Wi-Fi. WiMAX, which is backed by Intel, outmatches Wi-Fi in terms of data rates, scalability, coverage area, and low latency, and In-Stat predicts that WiMAX's Asian-Pacific user base will expand from 80,000 users to over 3.8 million in the next four years. Other 4G technologies under development include UMTS TDD, field trials of which are being rolled out by Sprint/Nextel in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. There is also Flash-OFDM, whose inventor, Flarion Technologies, was recently bought by Qualcomm, which may integrate certain Flash-OFDM components with its MediaFLO service for delivering streaming video to cell phones over a portion of the UHF broadcast spectrum the wireless chipmaker owns. Experts hesitate to make definite predictions about which 4G technology will rule the roost: IPWireless CEO Chris Gilbert believes the abundance of industry players will lead to an assortment of technologies, resulting in more and more network-agnostic wireless devices. Total IP reliance will probably become a 4G element, but there are a host of other issues wireless carriers will have to address as they roll out 4G, such as what business model they should use.
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  • "Science Finds New Patterns"
    UC Davis News and Information (10/18/05)

    Researchers at the University of California, Davis, are exploring pattern recognition as it relates to the disciplines of computer science, statistics, biology, and physics. All of these fields are characterized by vast amounts of data that can be prohibitive to human synthesis unless the information is broken down into digestible patterns. Pattern analysis has already been adopted in the business community by organizations such as Amazon.com, which uses it to make associations between demographic data and purchasing habits, which inform recommendations for future purchases. Nello Cristianini, an associate professor of statistics at UC Davis, notes that given enough data, patterns can be found that have no meaning, such as the appearance of a phone number in the infinite digits of pi, though he says that statistical analysis can help identify the patterns that are truly relevant. Pattern analysis can shed light on the way newborn babies learn from processing the information their senses absorb without any external guidance, and Cristianini hopes that the same process of finding meaningful information in an unstructured mass of data could eventually be applied to machines. While transistors function thousands of times faster than the neural switches in the human brain, computers cannot identify images as quickly as people because they lack the ability to identify a whole object by a passing recognition of its outline or one of its parts. Pattern analysis could also be used to compress large files, expanding on the JPEG format's technique by further dividing images between their uniform and oscillatory areas. Jim Crutchfield, an early complexity and chaos theorist, is using computers to gain insight into how theories emerge from data. Harnessing the power of greater volumes of raw data could improve our ability to see into the future, with practical applications in areas such as climate prediction.
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  • "Codes Make Printers Stool Pigeons"
    E-Commerce Times (10/19/05); Mello Jr., John P.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has cracked codes used by the Secret Service to monitor the output of select color laser printers to fight currency counterfeiting. The codes are only viewable under blue light or a microscope, and display the date and time of the printing, as well as the printer's serial number. A list of the printers that use the tracking codes is posted on the EFF's Web site, and the organization is concerned about how the codes will compromise the anonymity of whistleblowers, dissidents, journalists, and anyone else who may depend on secrecy to convey a legitimate message. "What right does the government have to make backroom deals with makers of equipment to make it easier to for people to be tracked or traced without their knowledge and without any public debate?" asked EFF attorney Lee Tien, expressing his concern that the use of codes in printers constitutes a major public policy issue. The printer codes, which show up as patterns of yellow dots in a 15-by-8 matrix, were made public last fall, though similar technologies have been in use in color copiers for much longer, according to a researcher for Xerox. Purdue University computer science professor Edward J. Delp has developed a less-compromising method for matching documents to their printers. However, Delp says his method is somewhat more difficult and costly. The Secret Service maintains that the printer codes are vital to its fight against counterfeiters, and adds that the technology does not track any of the operations or contents of a PC.
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  • "IBM Looking Ahead at IT for Maturing Workers"
    Application Development Trends (10/12/05); Waters, John K.

    To address the needs of an aging workforce, IBM is devoting a significant portion of its research efforts to the unique needs and limitations of older technology users. Accessibility has become a dominant theme of IBM's research, which it is showcasing on its alphaWorks Web site. Accessibility joins visualization and semantics as one of the three research topics into which all content is organized on its alphaWorks site. One of IBM's new accessibility-driven technologies, the keyboard optimizer, allows users to customize their keyboards based on their individual typing style. Users type a sample, which the keyboard uses to define the accessibility settings, taking into account factors such as long and short key presses, and a one-handed or two-handed typing style. Users with motor disabilities can enjoy greater accessibility to Web pages through IBM's Web adaptation technology, which can alter a page's font, images, and layout to make it more readable. The technology underpins WebAdapt2Me, an application already in use by corporations and educational institutions. People with tremors can negotiate the movements of a mouse more easily with IBM's mouse smoothing software, which eliminates excessive movement of the cursor through a similar technology used in cameras to reduce the effects of hand shaking. IBM has already provided Mozilla's Firefox with accessibility software, and offers universities the license to a free disability simulator to help Web administrators determine how friendly their sites are to the visually impaired.
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  • "OECD Scoreboard Shows High Degree of International R&D Collaboration in Europe"
    Cordis News Service (10/13/05)

    Europe is becoming more of a hub for international research and development than its competitors, according to the new "science, technology, and industry scoreboard" of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For example, foreign companies represent 70 percent of industrial R&D in Hungary and Ireland, and more than 40 percent in the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, compared with less than 5 percent in Japan. Meanwhile, foreigners account for 37.5 percent of domestic inventions in the United Kingdom, compared with more than 12 percent in the United States and less than 4 percent in Japan. Europe is a leader in research intensity as well, with research accounting for more than 4 percent of the GDP of Sweden, followed by 3 percent for Finland, Japan, and Iceland. Sweden also publishes the most scientific articles, in relation to population size, and is trailed by Switzerland, then Finland. However, the United States employs the most researchers, with 1.3 million in 1999, followed by China at 862,000 and Japan at 675,000. Information communications technology is fueling R&D and accounted for more than 25 percent of spending in 2002.
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  • "Creating New Outsourced Business Applications"
    IST Results (10/17/05)

    A new open source standard has emerged to assure security, resilience, and quality of service to the smaller application service providers (ASPs) in Europe. ASPs must guarantee access to a broad array of services for hosted applications, regardless of the providing platform or organization. Service level agreements (SLAs) are integral to this process, as they communicate across infrastructures and solidify the relationship between a service's provider and consumer. Smaller ASPs have historically had difficulty hosting complex Internet services that require quick response times and strong security, such as stock trading and online auctions. The project that set out to address this issue, TAPAS, identified three critical requirements. The middleware platform that hosts the application must consider the quality of service of performance and availability. Second, rigid terms and conditions must guide the interactions between organizations. Finally, the platform should demonstrate that the hosted applications fulfill the quality of service requirements of SLAs. The project used JBOSS hosting platforms supplemented with additional services such as dynamic resource management and third-party monitoring. The program was successfully demonstrated in a prototype application of a car company selling auto parts at auction.
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  • "Workers Highly Individualistic IT Users in 2015: Gartner"
    Computerworld Australia (10/18/05); Crawford, Michael

    A recent Gartner study has concluded that the commoditization of IT will be so widespread by 2015 that the key differentiating factor in the workplace will be the way individuals employ technology. Technology will become simply a tool to get the job done, while the human will be the "engine of innovation," according to the research group's Betsy Burton. Successful companies will place a premium on innovative employees, and will view technology only for its utility, much the same way that we look at a toaster today. The belief that technology holds no intrinsic value means that executives will have to create a workplace that encourages worker empowerment. Instead of controlling the use of technology such as instant messaging, the CIO should instead outline effective usage policies and leave it up to the workers to follow them. While technology will undeniably be critical to the future of business, IT managers say that it will never replace the common sense of a human. Computers instead will be more likely to take over the menial tasks that require minimal thought and decision making. Databases could take over many of the functions of today's analysts, for example, though they likely won't be as accurate.
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  • "Windows Into the Future"
    PC Magazine (10/12/05); Miller, Michael J.

    While Microsoft is still hammering out the details of its forthcoming release of Windows Vista, some of the company's visionaries already have their sights set on the post-Vista operating system. Their main goal is the creation of a fluid computing environment where users can move unimpeded among their home and office computers, their smart phone, and their handheld device. Stateless computing is Bill Gates' user-centric vision that will transform Windows from an operating system designed for a single, stationary machine into an integrated framework that will unify all of our digital devices, though Microsoft's top designers recognize that the stateless world is at least a decade away. It will require an interface that is user-friendly and consistent across the disparate media of the PC, the Internet, the camera, and the phone. Microsoft will have to make significant strides in its software to keep up with recent advances in hardware, such as 64-bit and multicore processors. The migration to WinFS promises to enable universal access to data so that information is not trapped within a given application, though it will require improvements in database technology, developer tools, and object-relational mapping. To address the emerging demand for immediate access to information from an ever-growing variety of sources, Microsoft has been sinking considerable investments in real-time communications and collaboration, such as telephony, which it hopes to transform from an analog environment into a digital one. New user interfaces could reshape the way we interact with information, and could even give it a third dimension. Another frontier for Microsoft is the development of automated programming tools to test whether or not a program works mathematically, rather than by assessing each feature individually.
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  • "Repro Man"
    Wall Street Journal (10/15/05) P. A8; Stecklow, Steve

    Hollywood executives claim the flood of Internet-based movie piracy is attributable to one person: 21-year-old Norwegian Jon Lech Johansen, who wrote and published a DVD copying program at 15 that earned him an award for societal contribution from a private school and an indictment from Norway's government. Such charges did not stop Johansen from being acquitted in two criminal trials, and he has struck a chord with people who believe legally acquired digital entertainment should be subject to fair use rights. With the help of an online discussion group, Johansen crafted his DVD copying program so he could watch less expensive American discs on European players, an action prevented by geographical coding restrictions. He also wished to copy DVDs to his PC's hard drive so he would not have to carry the discs with him while traveling. Carnegie Mellon University professor David Touretzky says Johansen's prosecution for posting his DVD encryption workaround on the Internet provoked howls of outrage from computer programmers who considered such actions to be a form of free speech, and the bill for Johansen's initial legal costs was paid for by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Johansen continues to develop and distribute software workarounds for other forms of digital rights management, and he describes his software as tools for liberating honest consumers from unfair usage restrictions imposed by industry. Johansen challenges Hollywood's assertion that the publication of his DVD copying software on the Internet caused digital movie piracy to substantially increase with the argument that major film pirates use entertainment industry gear, rather than his program, to mass-produce bootleg discs.
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  • "Senate Backs More Defense R&D Than Bush Sought"
    National Journal's Technology Daily (10/14/05); Wodele, Greta

    The Senate has approved a budget that would allow the Defense Department to spend $75.8 billion on information technology systems, aircraft, ships, and other military equipment in fiscal 2006. However, President Bush has requested $800 million more for the Pentagon, and the amount for spending is $1.9 billion less than a year ago. In all, the Senate wants to set aside $445.6 billion for the Pentagon, including $70.4 billion for research, development, testing, and evaluation. The amount for research and development surpasses the $69.4 billion proposed by President Bush and $70 billion the department received for R&D a year ago. Although the Senate allots $92.3 million for emergency R&D funding, the bill cuts $250 million from a satellite program and $236.3 million for a joint tactical radio system. However, the bill makes $3.3 billion available for R&D on future combat systems and $39 million for new devices to protect Army vehicles. The House passed its version of the appropriations bill in June, and the two chambers will have to hammer out the differences in their versions.
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  • "Free Ideas"
    Economist (10/13/05) Vol. 377, No. 8448, P. 67

    A group of leading scientists, experts, legal scholars, and artists last week joined the debate over the rise in the number of patents and copyrights in the digital age by introducing a statement called the Adelphi Charter. Britain's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce is behind the group, which essentially believes that today's intellectual property laws tend to favor private interests over the public. According to the 453-word charter, policymakers should be predisposed to opposing expanding intellectual-property laws, place the burden of proof on those who want to expand rights, require extensive analysis to support the desired change, and request input from the greater public. The "public-interest test" the Adelphi group wants policymakers to consider before revamping intellectual-property laws appears to be a sound approach, but the charter does not support patents for software and copyrights for databases, ideas that should be held up to the same kind of scrutiny that they demand of their opponents. As more companies use copyrights and patents to protect their businesses, other interests, such as open-source software advocates, say the laws have become too stringent. Although the charter does not have all the answers, Adelphite James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University, maintains that "good policy does not just consist of 'more rights,' it consists of maintaining a balance between the realm of property and the realm of the public domain."
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  • "Even a Chatbot Can Turn Nasty"
    New Scientist (10/15/05) Vol. 188, No. 2521, P. 26; Graham-Rowe, Duncan

    It has long been the challenge of software programmers seeking to create devices capable of human interaction to impart to machines the ability to glean the subtleties of human communication, but insults and swear words also pose a unique challenge to make artificial intelligence agents with practical applications. Central to this endeavor is the ability to curb the human frustration with technology that so often manifests itself in cursing at the computer for its slow speed or the television for its poor reception. The chatbot George recently won the Loebner prize for the program that converses most like a human, though when engaged with actual people, up to 11 percent of the language directed toward George was abusive, and some of the invective was considered downright pornographic. Jabberwacky, the program that powers George, filters out much of the offensive and insulting language it hears, so as not to incorporate it into its own vocabulary, which is an especially important feature as more corporations are turning to chatbots to power their automated telephone services. The fact that poor spelling correlates to abusive language helps prevent chatbots from absorbing it, though a recent study found that some commercial chatbots responded to profanity and sexual propositions with language that was equally inappropriate. Traditional call center techniques of calming frustrated customers can be applied to chatbots, as can the zero-tolerance approach that warns the customer that the conversation will be terminated unless he stops being rude. It has been shown that people are more willing to be rude to a machine than to a person, a psychological factor that is evident in the contrast between terse emails and polite phone conversations. Advances in social intelligence could address this problem, as chatbots that more closely simulate humans would not be as likely to arouse the ire of customers on the phone.
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  • "R&D Revival"
    Computerworld (10/17/05) P. 43; Geer, David

    Since the bottom dropped out of the IT industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there has been a resurgence in research and development, though the atmosphere has become more collaborative and circumspect. Companies are now insisting on proving the value of a technology before it enters production. R&D had a land-grab mentality in the dot-com days, and the lack of coordination and planning caused the majority of that period's R&D initiatives to fail. The focus of R&D is still on rapid innovation, but that focus is now confined to practical, well-planned ventures that mesh with the company's business model. Harnessing R&D to solve business problems has breathed new life into innovation, and has given it a financial justification. Tangible evidence of the new role of R&D can be found in companies such as DaimlerChrysler, where monthly meetings are held to discuss the business expectations of R&D efforts, in contrast to the insular approach of the dot-com days where R&D teams operated essentially in a vacuum. Greater collaboration means that there is more brainpower involved in R&D, which can help to both focus and stimulate innovation. At DaimlerChrysler, product managers participate in customer focus groups. Procter & Gamble collaborates with its vendors, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, to tap into their research efforts. Some of the collaboration is less direct, such as Ford's partnership with the Internet2 group to help anticipate the impact new technologies such as podcasting and videocasting will have on its business. RFID technology is another area of emerging research that has drawn particular attention from businesses for its potential to streamline supply chain operations. While R&D is now subject to conventional business metrics such as ROI, innovation is still regarded as a key differentiator in the marketplace.
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  • "As Threats Evolve, Defenses Must Adapt"
    eWeek (10/17/05) Vol. 22, No. 41, P. 20; Roberts, Paul F.

    The effectiveness of anti-virus software is waning as hackers and other online miscreants craft new classes of malware that can work around traditional safeguards, forcing anti-virus experts into a race to develop better forms of protection. The hacking landscape has changed as teenagers seeking notoriety are replaced by professional criminals seeking financial gain; accompanying this trend is an increase in the frequency of exploits, which means anti-virus companies' window of opportunity for updating virus signatures before an attack is growing smaller. More and more malicious programs are using features taken from rootkit programs that can thwart anti-virus scanners by masking common malware identifiers, according to F-Secure's Kimmo Kasslin at the recent Virus Bulletin International Conference. Also attending was Symantec manager Kevin Hogan, who pointed to changes in malware dissemination techniques fueling exploits' transformation from global to local affairs. Although the sharing of malware samples between anti-virus companies is a longstanding tradition, companies are increasingly placing priority on malicious programs reported by customers and concentrating less on viruses sent by competitors, noted New Zealand virus researcher Nick FitzGerald; he warned that the anti-virus community could be fragmented in the face of increasingly specialized attacks. As the nature of cyber-threats changes, so too does the role of anti-virus technology in the enterprise, said Hogan. Gartner analyst John Pescatore illustrated this point with his observation that signature-based detection is still useful for shielding email and spotting malign programs at the edge of the network, but it has little value on the desktop. IDefense's Ken Dunham said anti-virus scanning will have to be integrated with data taken from threat analysis and vulnerability scans.
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  • "Optical Disks Used for Long-Term Storage by 2010"
    NE Asia Online (10/05); Arai, Masayuki

    The creation of built-in storage media is being fueled by the growing capacity of Flash memory and the development of communications technology, and optical disks are on track to serve as a medium for long-term storage by the end of the decade. Engineers of optical disks are particularly intrigued by the long-term storage of data in data centers and other servers, because there is a definite demand for large-capacity storage media that can make full use of the expected capacity of optical disks, and because of the anticipated market growth. A single side of an optical disk will boast 1 TB or more of storage capacity by 2010 or later, according to the optical disk technology roadmap. It appears that by 2010 many kinds of equipment with built-in large-capacity storage devices will be interlinked via the high-speed communications network, and the era of content delivery is starting to become palpable to storage media engineers, especially through the fast proliferation of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). General-purpose interfaces, communication networks, and other options are also starting to tale the role of equipment-to-equipment data swapping from optical disks. Built-in media already has the storage capacity of several to several dozen gigabytes, which means it is likely that there will be adequate--perhaps more than adequate--capacity for any application available at relatively reasonable prices in 2010. Current Flash memory-equipped portable music players can only store several hundred songs, but in 2010 similar devices will include existing hard disk drives to carry several thousand.
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  • "Seeing Is Not Believing"
    Popular Science (10/05) Vol. 267, No. 4, P. 70; Casimiro, Steve

    Inexpensive digital cameras and simple software have made it easy to convincingly doctor photographs, and such fake images can tarnish reputations, manipulate political opinion, fool security, and be mistaken for legitimate evidence in judicial proceedings while discounting the authenticity of actual proof. The profound ignorance of the problem is only surpassed by the lack of people working on solutions, although effective methods for preventing and spotting digital photo tampering are starting to emerge, primarily through military and law enforcement-directed efforts. Dartmouth College computer scientist and digital forensics expert Hany Farid has developed algorithms that scan images for statistical data patterns that certain forms of doctoring leave behind, but the software cannot accurately assess the compressed and low-resolution images the Internet is rife with. Another approach is to tag photos with digital watermarks as proof of legitimacy, and Jessica Fridrich of State University of New York Binghamton is developing a camera that affixes watermarks as well as biometric identifiers for the photographer, which could be very useful in court cases where the genuineness of photos is disputed. Another potentially significant future development is digital ballistics, in which the specific camera that shot a digital photo or photos could be identified by software that detects patterns left by distinctive imperfections in the camera's light sensor. Farid, however, is resigned to the fact that no anti-forgery technique is foolproof. Determined and resourceful forgers will always defeat even the most advanced security measures, and he believes the best recourse is to keep prevention and detection methods refined enough to thwart the majority of forgers.
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