Welcome to the August 6, 2021 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Checking the vaccination status of attendees of a performance in Manhattan. New York City's Vaccine Passport Plan Renews Online Privacy Debate
The New York Times
Erin Woo; Kellen Browning
August 4, 2021

New York's City's mandate that people must show proof at least one coronavirus vaccine shot, or vaccine passport, to enter businesses has revived the debate of whether these digital certificates undermine online privacy. The applications may enable location tracking, and privacy researchers are worried about digital surveillance escalating. The New York Civil Liberties Union's Allie Bohm said without restrictions, presenting a digital vaccination passport whenever people enter a public place could lead to a "global map of where people are going," which could be sold or turned over to third parties, law enforcement, or government authorities. Privacy advocates are not reassured by vaccine pass developers' claims that their products uphold privacy, given that authoritarian regimes have exploited COVID-19 contact-tracing apps for surveillance or criminal investigation.

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The New York University flag. Facebook Disables Accounts Tied to NYU Research Project
Kurt Wagner; Naomi Nix
August 3, 2021

Facebook has disabled the personal accounts of New York University (NYU) scientists studying political ads on the social network, alleging their extraction of data violates its terms of service. Facebook's Mike Clark said the company also blocked their access to Facebook's application programming interfaces, used to share network data to other apps or services, and disabled additional apps and pages linked to the NYU Ad Observatory project. The initiative has participants download a browser extension that gathers data on the political ads they see on Facebook, and how they were targeted. NYU's Laura Edelson said Facebook has basically terminated the university's effort to study misinformation in political ads "using user privacy, a core belief that we have always put first in our work, as a pretext for doing this."

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Female students in Kano, Nigeria assembling Legos. Teenage Girls in Northern Nigeria 'Open Their Minds' with Robotics
Seun Sanni; Nneka Chile
August 2, 2021

The Kabara non-governmental organization (NGO) in northern Nigeria is helping teenage girls in the city of Kano to learn robotics, computing, and other science, technology, engineering, and math subjects. Founded in 2016 by engineer Hadiza Garbati, Kabara has trained over 200 girls, with plans to extend its reach to other northern Nigerian cities. Conservative Muslim traditions in the region often deemphasize girls' education; the NGO hopes to broaden their horizons through activities like building machines, using common software programs, and learning math and science. Said Kabara supporter Nasiru Wada, an adviser to Kano's emir, "The main reason why we are doing this is to encourage them, to open their minds."

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3D 'Heat Map' Animation Shows How Seizures Spread in the Brains of Epilepsy Patients
University of California, San Francisco News
Wallace Ravven
July 30, 2021

University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) neuroscientists used an algorithm to visualize in three dimensions hundreds of electroencephalography (EEG) traces in the brain, resulting in an animated heat map of seizures in epileptic patients. UCSF's Robert Knowlton said the tool "makes it much easier to define where the seizure starts, and whether there's more than one trigger site," as well as visualizing the seizure's propagation. The algorithm differentiates seizures from the normal activity of the brain by adding the lengths of the lines on an EEG, and translating them into distinct colors. The heat maps have been used to help identify the initial seizure point and the spread of a seizure through the brain in over 115 patients.

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Illustration of an XLand videogame-like three-dimensional world. Endlessly Changing Playground Teaches AIs to Multitask
MIT Technology Review
Will Douglas Heaven
July 30, 2021

Alphabet’s DeepMind Technologies has developed a videogame-like three-dimensional world that allows artificial intelligence (AI) agents to learn skills by experimenting and exploring. Those skills can be used to perform tasks they have not performed before. XLand is managed by a central AI that controls the environment, game rules, and number of players, with reinforcement learning helping the playground manager and players to improve over time. The AI players played 700,000 different games in 4,000 different worlds and performed 3.4 million unique tasks. Rather than learning the best thing to do in each scenario, the AI players experimented until they completed the task at hand.

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CISA Launches Initiative to Combat Ransomware
Federal Computer Week
Chris Riotta
August 5, 2021

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) officially launched the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC), an anti-ransomware initiative supported by public-private information sharing. CISA director Jen Easterly said the organization was created to develop cyber defense strategies and exchange insights between the federal government and private-sector partners. A CISA webpage said interagency officials will work in the JCDC office to lead the development of U.S. cyber defense plans that incorporate best practices for dealing with cyber intrusions; a key goal is coordinating public-private strategies to combat cyberattacks, particularly ransomware, while engineering incident response frameworks. Said security vendor CrowdStrike Services’ Shawn Henry, the JCDC "will create an inclusive, collaborative environment to develop proactive cyber defense strategies" and help "implement coordinated operations to prevent and respond to cyberattacks."

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A diagnostic testing procedure in Uganda. 'Origami' Testing App Could Tackle Spread of Malaria
University of Glasgow (U.K.)
August 2, 2021

Researchers at the U.K.'s University of Glasgow and Uganda's Ministry of Health have developed easy-to-administer blood tests that could help curtail the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. These "origami" tests can be conducted in the field, with a blood sample taken via fingerprick placed in a channel made from sheets of folded wax paper. The blood is directed into three small chambers of a loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) machine, which tests for the presence of the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria. A companion smartphone app uses deep learning to ensure the tests are accurate and to monitor community transmission. The results are stored on a blockchain-based ledger to maintain privacy, with anonymized data shared with local authorities. In field tests in Uganda, the blood tests were shown to be 98% accurate.

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A purple iPhone12 and its box sit on a keyboard. Apple to Scan iPhones for Child Sex Abuse Images
BBC News
James Clayton
August 5, 2021

Apple has unveiled a system designed to scan U.S. customers' iPhones to determine if they contain child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The system compares photo files on each handset to a database of known CSAM gathered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other organizations. Before an iPhone can be used to upload an image to the iCloud Photos platform, the technology will look for matches to known CSAM; matches are evaluated by a human reviewer, who reports confirmed matches to law enforcement. The company said the system's privacy benefits are significantly better than existing techniques, because Apple only learns about users' images if their iCloud Photos accounts contain collections of known CSAM.

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Information Transfer Protocol Reaches Quantum Speed Limit
Joint Quantum Institute
Bailey Bedford
August 3, 2021

Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) scientists have developed a quantum information transfer protocol that reaches theoretical speed limits for some quantum operations. The protocol is engineered for quantum devices in which interactions between quantum bits (qubits) weaken as they recede from each other, covering a range of interactions that do not weaken too quickly. The protocol can deliver many of quantum computer's promised benefits by transferring data within an unknown quantum state to a distant qubit. Data stored on one qubit is shared with its neighbors via quantum entanglement, and the qubits cooperate to spread it to other sets of qubits, accelerating the transfer as more sets are involved. JQI's Minh Tran said, "Moving information fast also means that you can process information faster."

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A facial scan with feature labels. Researchers Say They've Found a Wildly Successful Bypass for Face Recognition Tech
Lucas Ropek
August 4, 2021

Computer scientists at Israel's Tel Aviv University (TAU) say they have developed a "master face" method for circumventing a large number of facial recognition systems, by applying artificial intelligence to generate a facial template. The researchers say the technique exploits such systems' usage of broad sets of markers to identify specific people; producing facial templates that match many such markers essentially creates an omni-face that can bypass numerous safeguards. The researchers created the master face by plugging an algorithm into a generative adversarial network that builds digital images of artificial human faces. The TAU team said testing showed the template was able unlock over 20% of the identities in an open source database of 13,000 facial images operated by the University of Massachusetts.

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A electric car exits a charging station. Security Flaws Found in Popular EV Chargers
Aria Alamalhodaei
August 3, 2021

Analysts at U.K. cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners have identified flaws in the application programming interfaces of six home electric vehicle (EV) charging brands, as well as the Chargepoint public EV charging station network. Pen Test analyst Vangelis Stykas found several vulnerabilities that could enable hackers to commandeer user accounts, hinder charging, and repurpose a charger as a backdoor into the owner's home network. The Chargepoint flaw, meanwhile, could let hackers steal electricity and shift the cost to driver accounts, and activate or deactivate chargers. Some EV chargers use a Raspberry Pi compute module, a popular low-cost computer that Pen Test’s Ken Munro said is unsuitable for commercial applications due to its lack of a secure bootloader. Charger manufacturers have corrected most of the issues, but the flaws' existence highlights the poor regulation of Internet of Things devices.

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ForCE Model Accurately Predicts How Coasts Will Be Impacted by Storms, Sea-Level Rise
August 1, 2021

An algorithm-based model developed by researchers at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. predicts the impact of storms and rising sea levels on coastlines with greater than 80% accuracy. The Forecasting Coastal Evolution (ForCE) model can predict the evolution of coastlines and assess their resilience to erosion and flooding using past and present beach measurements, data on coastlines' physical properties, and tidal, surge, and global sea-level rise data. The model can predict short-term impacts over days to years, as well as longer-term coastal evolution over decades. Said Plymouth’s Mark Davidson, who developed the model, “Top level coastal managers around the world have recognized a real need to assess the resilience of our coastlines in a climate of changing waves and sea level. …We hope that our work with the ForCE model will be a significant step towards providing this new and essential capability.”

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Simulations of melanoma cell image traces. AI Algorithm to Assess Metastatic Potential in Skin Cancers
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
August 3, 2021

A new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm can predict highly metastatic skin cancers. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) researchers who developed the algorithm used AI to identify differences between images of melanoma cells with high and low metastatic potential, then used reverse engineering to determine which visual features were associated with the difference. They generated 1.7 million raw images from videos of about 12,000 random cells from tumor samples from seven patients. The algorithm identified 56 different abstract numerical features from those images, which the researchers manipulated to generate images exaggerating visible characteristics inherent to metastasis. Said UTSW's Gaudenz Danuser, "We now have a general framework that allows us to take tissue samples and predict mechanisms inside cells that drive disease."

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