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Welcome to the February 21, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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voter registration drive in Nevada In Nevada, Last-Minute Scramble to Make Voting Tech Work
The Washington Post
Reed Albergotti
February 20, 2020


Nevada's Democratic Party hopes to avoid the fiasco seen in Iowa when it holds its caucuses Saturday with an in-house electronic voting system that it had to assemble quickly. The party opted to scrap the Shadow app that caused the Iowa debacle, and will instead distribute some 2,000 iPads running Cisco Systems' Meraki software. The tablets have a single icon on their home page linking to customized Google Cloud software through cellular data. Site volunteers will write vote totals on paper and on a poster hanging on the site wall during the caucus, to be used for official results; Meraki will automatically adjust totals entered via iPad, based on the number of early votes cast in the precinct. Volunteers will need to allocate votes manually if the software or app malfunctions, or if the Internet connection is lost.

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Larry Tesler Larry Tesler: Computer Scientist Behind Cut, Copy, and Paste Dies at Age 74
BBC News
February 20, 2020


Larry Tesler, inventor of the "cut," "copy," and "paste" commands, recipient of ACM SIGCHI's Lifetime Practice Award in 2011 and inducted to the CHI Academy in 2010, has died at the age of 74. Tesler's innovations helped make personal computers simple to learn and use. After New York-born Telser graduated from Stanford University, he specialized in user-interface design, the process of making computer systems more user-friendly. He worked for a number of technology firms during his long career, including the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Parc), Apple, Amazon, and Yahoo. Tesler "combined computer science training with a counterculture vision that computers should be for everyone," according to Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum.

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Cryptographic 'Tag of Everything' Could Protect Supply Chain
MIT News
Rob Matheson
February 20, 2020


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have created a cryptographic identity tag that can be attached to virtually any product in order to verify its authenticity. The millimeter-sized "tag of everything" operates on low levels of power from photovoltaic diodes, and transmits data via a power-free backscatter technique. The tag employs algorithm optimization to run an elliptic curve cryptography scheme to ensure secure communications that requires little power. MIT's Mohamed I. Ibrahim said, "We think we can have a reader as a central hub that doesn't have to come close to the tag, and all these chips can beam-steer their signals to talk to that one reader."

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jamming bracelet Activate 'Bracelet of Silence' and Alexa Can't Eavesdrop
The New York Times
Kashmir Hill
February 16, 2020


Computer science professors at the University of Chicago (UChicago) created a prototype wearable device that blocks microphones in the vicinity from eavesdropping on conversations. The "bracelet of silence" features 24 speakers emitting ultrasonic signals that jam nearby microphones. The bracelet impedes the recording of conversations by smart speakers like the Amazon Echo, whose microphones are always on by default. UChicago's Heather Zheng said a jammer should be portable in order to offer protection to users when entering environments where microphones and other Internet of Things devices may be operating without their knowledge. Said UChicago's Ben Zhao, "The future is to have all these devices around you, but you will have to assume they are potentially compromised."

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Google icon and Western Hemisphere map, illustration Google Moves U.K. User Data to U.S. to Avert Brexit Risks
Financial Times
Madhumita Murgia
February 20, 2020


Google will move all data related to U.K.-based users of its services—including Gmail, YouTube, and the Android Play store—from Ireland to the U.S. as it aims to avoid legal issues following Brexit. If the U.K. and the EU fail to agree on a data-sharing deal by the end of this year, it will be illegal to transfer and process data between Britain and the European bloc. Google is likely skeptical of the U.K.'s ability to retain its "adequacy" status with the EU, which would allow free flow of data. Said Michael Veale at University College London Faculty of Laws, “Google would be exposed to considerable risk of illegality in relation to data transfers between Ireland and the U.K., as it would have to find another way to legalize the processing—and these ways are fast disappearing.”

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asteroids near Earth, illustration Scientists Spot 11 Asteroids That Could Hit Earth—that were 'Missed by NASA Software'
The Daily Mail
Ian Randall
February 19, 2020


Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands developed an algorithm that detected 11 asteroids that could strike the Earth in the future and cause "unprecedented devastation," asteroids that software used by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had overlooked. The researchers simulated the orbits of the sun and planets over the next 10,000 years using the algorithm on Leiden's ALICE supercomputer, then gradually reversed the model while simulating the trajectories of imaginary asteroids “thrown” from Earth into space. Running the model forward again created a database of eventual object collisions, which the researchers used to train the algorithm to identify potentially dangerous asteroids. The Hazard Object Identifier (HOI) system can spot hazardous asteroids, achieving 90.99% accuracy compared to a NASA database of space objects.

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Tyson Takes Computer Vision to the Chicken Plant
The Wall Street Journal
Sara Castellanos
February 10, 2020


Tyson Foods will use computer vision to track chicken moving through its plants as part of a plan to invest more in automation and artificial intelligence in order to cut costs and reduce waste. By the end of this year, the company expects to have cameras, machine learning algorithms, and edge computing up and monitoring the processing of hundreds of thousands of pounds of packaged chicken a week in seven of its processing facilities. The technology will allow Tyson to gain more control over its inventory and manage the freshness of its chicken. Said Tyson’s Lee Slezak, “We’re trying to apply technology everywhere we can as a company to drive down costs and drive up efficiency and business value.”

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David Rupprecht and Katharina Kohls monitoring cellphone activity. Attackers Can Impersonate Other Mobile Phone Users
Ruhr-University Bochum
Julia Weiler
February 17, 2020


Researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) in Germany exploited a bug in the LTE (4G) mobile communication standard to impersonate mobile phone users, to the extent of being able to open subscriber accounts or publish sensitive documents using someone else's identity. Although data packets are sent encrypted between the mobile phone and the base station, the packets are modifiable, which allowed the researchers to convert the encrypted data traffic into plain text and route commands to the phone to be encrypted and forwarded to the provider. The vulnerability extends to all devices that communicate with LTE. The researchers are attempting to correct this bug in the 5G standard, but as RUB’s David Rupprecht observed, “Mobile network operators would have to accept higher costs, as the additional protection generates more data during the transmission.”

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A man holding a robust drone controller. Could Nearly Invincible Drone Be the Future of Disaster Relief?
USC Viterbi News
Caitlin Dawson
February 17, 2020


At the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, researchers have developed autonomous drones that can recover from collisions and other disruptions. Using reinforcement learning to train the controller that stabilizes the drones in simulation mode, the researchers presented randomized challenges to the controller until it learned to navigate them. The researchers tested the controller by subjecting them to disruptions like kicking and pushing; the drones were able to recover 90% of the time. Viterbi’s Gaurav Sukhatme said the research resolves two important issues in robotics: robustness (“if you’re building a flight control system, it can’t be brittle and fall apart when something goes wrong”), and generalization (“sometimes you might build a very safe system, but it will be very specialized”).

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Photo of a cyborg grasshopper Cyborg Grasshoppers Engineered to Sniff Out Explosives
New Scientist
Donna Lu
February 17, 2020


Washington University researchers have converted American grasshoppers into bomb-sniffing tools by implanting electrodes in the insects' antenna lobes to tap into the capabilities of their olfactory receptor neurons. The researchers equipped grasshoppers with lightweight sensor backpacks to record and transmit detected electrical activity to a computer. Analysis of the antennae's electrical signals showed a differentiation between explosive and non-explosive vapors, as well as between different explosive materials. Further tests showed the cyborg insects could sense the highest concentration of explosives in different locations, and combining sensory data from seven grasshoppers returned an average 80% detection accuracy, versus 60% for one grasshopper.

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An illustration of a crystal covered in binary numbers. Scientists Use Crystals to Generate Random Numbers
Popular Mechanics
Courtney Linder
February 19, 2020


Computer scientists at the University of Glasgow in the U.K. have generated random numbers through an automated system that completes inorganic chemical reactions and grows crystals within a computer numerical control machine. The researchers outfitted a camera to the device to record images of the solidifying crystals, then used image-segmentation algorithms to examine the pixels corresponding to the crystals; a binarization algorithm converted the data into a series of 0s and 1s based on the crystalline geometry, repeating the process until the desired binary-code length for encryption was realized. Comparing this random-number generator with the Mersenne Twister pseudorandom number generator, the researchers found the new system decrypted messages faster.

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Gastrointestinal doctor Erik Schoon performing an endoscopy on a patient. Smart Software Detects Early-Stage Esophageal Cancer
Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands)
February 19, 2020


Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), Amsterdam University Medical Center, and the Catharina Hospital in the Netherlands have created smart software that can detect early-stage esophageal cancer in patients with Barrett's esophagus. The researchers trained the algorithm on hundreds of thousands of endoscopy images. The software outperformed 53 international endoscopists in identifying early signs of esophageal cancer in such images. TU/e's Fons van der Somme said, "Our system 'watches' live during an endoscopy in the esophagus. The algorithm gives a red mark on a screen at a suspicious spot. The doctor can then inspect the suspect area more closely and, if necessary, take a biopsy."

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A courtroom artists captures defendant and lawyers standing before judge. Algorithms are Better Than People in Predicting Recidivism, Study Says
Berkeley News
Edward Lempinen
February 14, 2020


A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University has found that algorithms can predict the likelihood that specific criminal defendants will be arrested for a new crime at some future point, with significantly greater accuracy than humans. In experiments, risk assessment algorithms were nearly 90% accurate in predicting which defendants might be arrested again, while human predictions were about 60% accurate. The researchers replicated previous research that evaluated recidivism likelihood based on a limited number of risk factors, but added other datasets to test the theory that real-world settings would make algorithmic assessment more effective than human evaluations. The results appear to support continued use and refinement of such algorithms. However, Stanford's Sharad Goel said, "Like any tools, risk assessment instruments must be coupled with sound policy and human oversight to support fair and effective criminal justice reform."

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