Welcome to the March 14, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
NSA's Plans Reportedly Involve Infecting Millions of Computers With Surveillance Malware
IDG News Service (03/12/14) Lucian Constantin
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) reportedly has been working to expand its ability to infect computers with surveillance malware and to create a command-and-control infrastructure that can simultaneously manage millions of compromised systems. NSA has deployed more than 50,000 Computer Network Exploitation implants around the world, and that number was expected to reach 85,000 by the end of 2013, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. NSA also has been developing TURBINE, a better command-and-control infrastructure that would enable the current implant network to scale to a larger size by creating a system that automatically controls implants by groups instead of individually. The implants are designed for specific surveillance tasks or act as malware frameworks that have a modular architecture and support a variety of additional plug-ins to enable different surveillance capabilities. NSA distributes its implants using man-in-the-middle and man-on-the-side techniques that route targeted users trying to access websites to attack servers under NSA control. The agency then exploits vulnerabilities in software to deploy the malware. "What we're learning now is that for every individual like that, they're also targeting many other people, including telecom operators, system administrators, maybe even academic cryptographers," says Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green. In a statement, NSA said the allegations were inaccurate and denied planting malware on millions of computers worldwide.
Google Is Encrypting Search Globally. That's Bad for the NSA and China's Censors.
The Washington Post (03/12/14) Craig Timberg; Jia Lynn Yang
Google is now routinely encrypting Web searches conducted in China as part of a global expansion of privacy technology designed to stop surveillance by government intelligence agencies. In the next few months, all searches made from most modern browsers will be encrypted. Google's growing use of encryption means China's government monitors cannot detect when users search for sensitive terms. Governments still have the option of blocking Google search services, but it will be more difficult to filter content for specific search terms and to identify who is searching for information on sensitive subjects. Google and other technology firms worldwide are increasing their encryption use as a result of the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance leaks. "The revelations of this past summer underscored our need to strengthen our networks," says Google's Niki Christoff. "Among the many improvements we've made in recent months is to encrypt Google Search by default around the world." Chinese authorities could respond to Google's encryption move by further adjusting the Great Firewall to block unwanted content and continue monitoring Internet users in China. Google's market share in China is much smaller than elsewhere in the world, but it is widely relied upon by international firms, so a potential Google block by China could have an economic impact.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee: World Wide Web Needs Bill of Rights
BBC News (03/12/14)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Foundation has established the Web We Want campaign to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Web. Berners-Lee says the online community has reached a crossroads, and people must decide whether to continue to allow governments to gain more control and do more surveillance, or create a set of values. "Are we going to set up something like a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web and say, 'actually, now it's so important, so much a part of our lives, that it becomes on a level with human rights?'" Berners-Lee asks. An outspoken critic of government surveillance, he has warned in the past that it could threaten the democratic nature of the Web. People should not feel like someone is looking over their shoulder when using the Web, Berners-Lee says. He also encourages people to take action and protest against surveillance.
Facebook Feelings Are Contagious, Study Shows
UCSD News (CA) (03/12/14) Inga Kiderra
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers analyzed more than a billion anonymized status updates among more than 100 million Facebook users in the United States and found that positive posts encouraged positive posts and negative posts produced negative ones, with the positive posts being more influential, or more contagious. "Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends' emotional expressions to change," says UCSD professor James Fowler. "We have enough power in this data set to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative." Each additional negative post yields 1.29 more negative posts among a person's friends, while each additional positive post yields an additional 1.75 positive posts among friends, according to the study. "It is possible that emotional contagion online is even stronger than we were able to measure," Fowler says. He says the findings could be significant for the public well-being. "If an emotional change in one person spreads and causes a change in many, then we may be dramatically underestimating the effectiveness of efforts to improve mental and physical health," Fowler says.
Who Needs to Know How to Code
The Wall Street Journal (03/12/14) Angela Chen
As the ability to code becomes increasingly important in various aspects of life, many non-IT professionals are pursuing technical skills. In addition, young children are beginning to take online programming courses and attend private coding lessons. For example, Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth (CTY) offers online courses in a range of subjects for elementary- and middle-school students, and its Web development classes are growing in popularity. This year 762 children enrolled in CTY's Introduction to Web Design course, up from 63 enrollees in 2009. There aren't many opportunities to learn coding in elementary and middle school, and some parents want children to learn programming as early as possible, says CTY's Patricia Wallace. Although it takes hundreds of hours to become even a junior developer, many professionals simply need to understand coding basics to know what is possible so they can work effectively with an IT team. Major corporations are sending senior teams to short courses in subjects such as big data and computer-aided design to enable them to understand and perform basic job-related tasks. "Programming teaches logic, higher-level math, and learning concepts that make you smarter and are useful no matter what," says Jake Schwartz, CEO of education startup General Assembly.
The Next Frontier in Crowdsourcing: Your Smartphone
Technology Review (03/12/14) Rachel Metz
Researchers are working on projects examining crowdsourcing via the lock screen on smartphones. About 160 million people in the United States, or 67 percent of cell phone users, have smartphones, and nearly 52 percent of these run Google's Android OS, which allows apps such as the Stanford University-developed Twitch to replace the standard lock screen. Twitch asks the user to complete a few simple tasks each time the phone is unlocked. Twitch developers say the system could provide a low-cost way to perform useful work that can easily be broken up into pieces and fed to millions of devices. A recent Stanford study found that 82 Twitch users completed 19 tasks a day over a three-week period. The participants were asked how many people were nearby, how they were dressed, and how energetic or lethargic they were. The study found the tasks were not more time-consuming or distracting than the basic slide-to-unlock gesture, as the median time to complete each task was 1.6 seconds, while the unlock gesture was 1.4 seconds. "All we did was replace that gesture that makes sure you're paying attention with something else that makes sure you're paying attention and also happens to contribute to some global goal," says Stanford professor Michael Bernstein.
Stanford Lab Yields New Privacy-Based Social Network
Stanford Report (CA) (03/10/14) Andrew Myers
Stanford University researchers from the School of Engineering's MobiSocial Lab have created the Omlet social network to allow users complete control over their personal data. The team believes Omlet is the first venture of the "privacy economy," based on the idea that people will pay a small initial fee to join social networks that guarantee data protection. "With news of [U.S. National Security Agency] eavesdropping and the ever-inscrutable, ever-evolving privacy policies of proprietary social networks, the public is increasingly and understandably concerned about where, when, and how their personal information is being used," says Stanford professor and MobiSocial lab founder Monica Lam. Omlet is a distributed semantic file system, meaning its decentralized data storage is not under the control of any single network. Data instead exists as indexed private files stored on a member's choice of personal cloud storage services. Users are not bound to any particular cloud service, and outside developers can customize the open source application.
Microsoft HereHere Platform Melds Analytics, Social Media
eWeek (03/10/14) Pedro Hernandez
A new mobile-friendly platform from Microsoft that combines data analytics and social media enables users to stay abreast of local happenings and become more engaged in their communities. For New York City, the HereHere platform analyzes data from the city's non-emergency help, information, and municipal services hub, 311, to identify the most critical and compelling requests. HereHere then sends texts as a human would about what is going on in their neighborhood. Instead of hitting users with a barrage of updates and neighborhood statistics, HereHere offers more relatable flourishes and natural-language texts, which are emailed to subscribers and tweeted on neighborhood-specific Twitter accounts. The updates also are displayed on a companion website that enables users to further explore their neighborhoods and issues affecting them on an interactive map. "Think of it as a meta-status update for the day--a simplification of issues in your neighborhood compressed into a text that you might get from a friend," says Microsoft Research's Kati London. Microsoft views HereHere as a stepping stone for helping users make sense of the Internet of Things.
Chipmaking: When Silicon Leaves the Valley
The Economist (03/08/14)
Researchers are pursuing new ways of making chips, as it grows increasingly difficult to fit more transistors onto a silicon wafer. Today's chips are so small that shrinking them is becoming difficult and costly, without offering as many benefits as in the past. The small size of current chips is sometimes damaging their functionality and restricting the extra performance they can offer. One new concept is an upright transistor, with the channel rising from the rest of the circuit to prevent the current from leaking as it does with traditional designs. The next step could be a gate-all-around transistor, with the channel surrounded on all four sides so that it is entirely encased within the gate. In addition to design changes, new materials such as III-V elements, closely related to silicon, could enable continued chipmaking improvements. Some of these materials can conduct current more efficiently than silicon, allowing lower voltages that would reduce power consumption and extend battery life. Many researchers favor carbon in the form of nanotubes or flat sheets called graphene. However, challenges exist with the new approaches and the economic case for putting them into production remains unclear. Some experts believe new technologies will be integrated gradually in the form of hybrid chips with both standard silicon transistors and new devices.
Linking Data for Better Information Management in SMEs
CORDIS News (03/07/14)
The European Union is funding an initiative that will develop tools to assist small and midsized enterprises (SMEs) and data providers with renovating public-sector information, and with easing the process of analyzing and interlinking it with enterprise data. Launched in December 2013, the Enabling Linked Data and Analytics for SMEs by renovating public-sector information (LINDA) project will develop a cross-platform, extensible software framework that can be used to build custom solutions for SMEs and public-sector organizations. The key tool also can be integrated into existing open data applications in order to support the automated conversion of data into linked data. The project will develop a repository for referencing and using metadata shared by multiple SMEs and data providers across different data endpoints, thus allowing automatic interlinking of datasets. LINDA is expected "to have a significant impact on the efficiency of the information management of enterprises, especially SMEs that in most cases cannot afford the development and maintenance of dedicated information analysis and management departments," according to the project team. LINDA will run for two years, and the outcomes will be tested and validated in three pilot cases.
Scientists Build Thinnest-Possible LEDs to Be Stronger, More Energy Efficient
UW News (03/10/14) Michelle Ma
University of Washington (UW) researchers say they have developed the thinnest-known light-emitting diode (LED) that can be used as a source of light energy in electronics. The new LED, which is 10 to 20 times thinner than conventional three-dimensional LEDs, is created with two-dimensional (2D) flexible semiconductors, which make it possible to stack or use them in much smaller and more diverse applications. "This is a huge leap of miniaturization of technology, and because it's a semiconductor, you can do almost everything with it that is possible with existing, three-dimensional silicon technologies," says UW graduate student Jason Ross. The new LED is made from flat sheets of tungsten diselenide, a new member of a group of 2D materials that have been identified as the thinnest-known semiconductors. The researchers say the technology also could lead to using light as interconnects to run nanoscale computer chips instead of standard devices that run off electricity. "Our work makes it possible to make highly integrated and energy-efficient devices in areas such as lighting, optical communication, and nano lasers," says UW professor Xiaodong Xu. The researchers now are studying more efficient ways to create the LEDs and examining what happens when 2D materials are stacked in different ways.
'Melbourne Shuffle' Secures Cloud Data
Brown University (03/05/14) Kevin Stacey
Brown University researchers have developed the Melbourne Shuffle, an algorithm that aims to conceal patterns that may emerge as users access data on cloud servers. The researchers say patterns of access could provide important information about a dataset even if the data files themselves are encrypted. "The objective of our work is to provide a higher level of privacy guarantees, beyond what encryption alone can achieve," says Brown's Olga Ohrimenko, the lead author of a paper describing the algorithm. The Melbourne Shuffle aims to hide patterns by shuffling the location of data on cloud servers. "The contribution of our paper is specifically a novel data-shuffling method that is provably secure and computationally more efficient than previous methods," Ohrimenko says. The algorithm works by pulling small chunks of data down from the cloud and placing them in a user's local memory. After the data is removed from the server, it is rearranged and then sent back to the cloud server. Completing this process over and over eventually shuffles all of the data on the cloud. "It becomes unfeasible for the cloud provider to figure out what the user is doing," says Brown professor Roberto Tamassia.
AI Researcher Says Amoral Robots Pose a Danger to Humanity
Computerworld (03/07/14) Sharon Gaudin
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Selmer Bringsjord is working on a way to code morality into artificial intelligence. He says understanding morality is increasingly important as robots become smarter and more autonomous. "I'm worried about both whether it's people making machines do evil things or the machines doing evil things on their own," Bringsjord says. "The more powerful the robot is, the higher the stakes are. If robots in the future have autonomy...that's a recipe for disaster." As robots enter military, law enforcement, and health aide roles, it might not be possible to prescribe how robots should behave in every possible scenario, Bringsjord says. However, robots could be encoded with basic principles, such as never to harm a human being. Morality would have to be built into a robot's operating system to help prevent hackers from using robots for malicious purposes. Several experts worry robots are advancing rapidly without sufficient focus on the issue of morality. "We want robots that can act on their own," says analyst Dan Olds. "As robots become part of our daily lives, they will have plenty of opportunities to crush and shred us. This may sound like some far off future event, but it's not as distant as some might think."
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