Welcome to the July 17, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Web's Anonymity Makes Cyberattack Hard to Trace
New York Times (07/17/09) P. A5; Markoff, John
A recent distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack that briefly crippled the Web sites of some U.S. and South Korean government agencies and businesses calls attention to the difficulty of tracing such attacks to their originators. Cyberwarfare experts have warned that the Internet is, in effect, a "wilderness of mirrors," and that tracking down the source of cyberattacks and other kinds of hacks is sometimes impossible. "There are no geographic borders for the Internet," says Bigfix chief technology officer Amrit Williams. "I can reach out and touch people everywhere." "We may never know the true origin of the attack unless the attacker made some colossal blunder," says consultant Joe Stewart. Researchers say the botnet behind the assault was smaller than the similar malware programs that the hacker community routinely employs, while independent researchers have demonstrated that the DDOS was very amateurish. This suggests that the attackers, which concealed their actions behind a global chain of Internet-connected computers, may have left a residual trail that will eventually lead to their apprehension. "There is a U.S. political debate [about cybersecurity] going on right now with high stakes and big payoffs," says Ronald J. Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies. "With the [Obama] administration cyberreview there are many government agencies orbiting around the policy debate that have an interest in pointing to [the recent DDOS] incident as evidence with obvious implications."
Researchers Aim at Post-DRAM Era
EE Times (07/15/09) Hammerschmidt, Christoph
Technologies based on permanent resistance changes in oxide or organic materials could be used to store energy, according to a German consortium of research institutes and companies studying a potential replacement for DRAM technology. The research into the properties of several materials and semiconducting mechanisms also is focusing on magnetization changes in ferromagnetic materials. For magnetic memories, the magnetizing effect would be achieved directly through current and not through magnetic fields, which would enable technologists to shrink semiconductors far beyond current MRAM approaches, according to a representative of Forschungszentrum Rossendorf in Dresden. Semiconductors are expected to shrink to 22nm geometries around 2016. Both approaches for the memory technologies would not rely on electric energy to maintain their information. The researchers also want to use the technologies in CMOS-compatible industrial processes, with the idea of shrinking the memory cells beyond the expected limit. The German government is providing about $11.9 million during the next three years for the project.
Argonne Develops Program for Cyber Security 'Neighborhood Watch'
Argonne National Laboratory (07/16/09) Cooper, Brock
The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Argonne National Laboratory has developed the Federated Model for Cyber Security, a program that enables its labs to share information on the millions of cyberattacks they fight off each year. The program allows cybersecurity defense systems to communicate with each other when attacked and share information with systems at other institutions in an effort to strengthen the overall cybersecurity of a complex. "The Federated Model for Cyber Security acts as a virtual neighborhood watch program," says Argonne cybersecurity officer Michael Skwarek. "If one institution is attacked, secure and timely communication to others in the federation will aid in protecting them from that same attack through active response." The ability to securely share information during an attack will help others protect themselves from similar attacks. "This program addresses the need for the exchange of hostile activity information with the goal of reducing the time to react across the complex," Skwarek says. "History has shown that hostile activity is often targeted at more than one location, and having our defenses ready and armed will assist greatly." The program is currently capable of transmitting information on hostile IP addresses and domain names, and will soon be able to share hostile email addresses and Web URLs. The team behind the Federated Model of Cyber Security was awarded the DOE's 2009 Cyber Security Innovation and Technology Achievement Award.
When Robots Invaded the Senate
National Science Foundation (07/14/09) Cruikshank, Dana W.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently held a luncheon briefing and open house for U.S. Senate members to demonstrate cyber-physical systems (CPS), an emerging technology that incorporates computing power to improve modern life. Technologies on display included robots that can replace lab animals in clinical trials, scalpels that a surgeon uses without ever touching, and cars capable of autonomously navigating through busy streets. More than 50 CPS researchers and students attended the event to inform policymakers about how their research may relate to the challenges faced by the federal government. The basic concept behind CPS is to combine computing power with existing systems to transform them into "smart" technologies, such as airplanes capable of detecting and monitoring each other and automatically adjusting flight patterns when necessary, or bridges capable of detecting when they are overloaded. Experts says that CPS technologies will have a major impact on the U.S.'s well being, security, and competitiveness in such areas as aerospace, automotive, civil infrastructure, energy, finance, healthcare, and manufacturing. NSF director Arden L. Bement, Jr. says CPS technologies are a strong example of the real-world applications that come from basic academic research. Lunch for the event was provided by ACM, the Coalition for National Science Funding, the Computing Research Association, and the American Chemical Society's Science & the Congress Project.
Fast, Flexible and Strong--Building Better Automated Workplace Assistants
ICT Results (07/17/09)
The European Union-funded Cybernetic Manufacturing Systems (CyberManS) research initiative has made significant progress toward the seamless integration of people and machines in manufacturing. CyberManS has developed a prototype intelligent work assistant device (IWAD), which is designed to support interaction between a human operator and an automated assistant. The project also has developed software to protect human operators. "Our philosophy is to have knowledge and awareness of the ergonomics not at the end of the process but at the start," says CyberManS coordinator Alessandro Levizzari. "It's important to anticipate the ergonomic evaluation of the workplace from the design phase on." A new software interface developed by the project helps ensure that good ergonomic design is incorporated at the earliest phases of a project. The interface combines numerous tools, including a database of potential risk factors and current guidelines, which are necessary to guarantee that a new manufacturing process will be both safe and sustainable. The software also supports the collection and interpretation of video and electromyography data as a worker performs either real or simulated tasks. The project has developed a prototype IWAD for facilitating fast and accurate welding operations in realistic conditions. The workstation features an automated welding gun equipped with haptic and vision systems, which helps reduce the operator's physical effort and provide intuitive, tactile feedback.
Data Overload on Dating Sites
Technology Review (07/17/09) Schrock, Andrew
New research on online dating sites shows that users can experience "cognitive overload" when faced with too many choices, causing them to make poorer decisions. The researchers, Pai-Lu Wu from Cheng Shiu University and Wen-Bin Chiou from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, suggest that new technologies and approaches could help address this problem. The study involved an experiment that gave online date-seekers varying numbers of search results on dating sites. The study found that providing fewer results led to more careful choices. Chiou says this trend is a "double-edged sword," as people like having a wide variety of choices, but a large selection means less time is spent evaluating each prospective choice. The researchers conclude "more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users' cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options." Michigan State University professor Nicole Ellisons says the sheer amount of information available online is a problem for users, and when searching for complex, subjective information, users may experience cognitive overload and make decisions based on superficial observations. Chiou believes a few technical solutions could reduce cognitive overload, such as reminding users how many profiles they have already viewed and which profiles most closely match their own.
Algorithms to Stop Net Threats
Australian IT (07/15/09) Foreshew, Jennifer
University of Wollongong professor Willy Susilo has received a grant to develop cryptographic algorithms that will stay secure against quantum computer attacks. Researchers believe that quantum computers will be able to crack all available encryption systems currently in use, and that the enormous power promised by quantum computing is expected to create a serious cybersecurity threat that can only be resolved with new cryptographic algorithms. Susilo says creating new algorithms will protect electronic commerce, and warns that quantum computers could be used to conduct cyberterrorism. A general-purpose quantum computer could be built within 20 years, and a special-purpose quantum computer could be available in seven to 10 years. Susilo's project is expected to improve the abilities of counter-terrorism agencies by delivering protection against attackers and terrorists equipped with quantum computers. "We need to produce something that can be used to replace the current system, which is based on the public infrastructure," Susilo says. "We have to tweak the system so that the size of the key will be larger than the capability of the quantum computer that can be built by that time." Susilo has developed an algorithm that can be used securely and will develop a prototype that can be adopted by industries, which he says should be ready in two years.
Scientists Discover Light Force With 'Push' Power
Yale University (07/13/09) Muzzin, Suzanne Taylor
Future nanodevices could potentially be controlled by light rather than electric power thanks to the discovery by Yale University researchers of a "repulsive" light force that can be applied to the manipulation of elements on silicon microchips. This complements an earlier discovery demonstrating the existence of an "attractive" light force that could be used to move components in semiconducting micro- and nano-electrical systems. The research was underwritten by a seed grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and a Young Faculty Award from the National Science Foundation. The two light forces exist separately from the force generated by light's radiation pressure, and they push out against an object or pull in sideways from the direction the light travels. To produce the repulsive force on a silicon chip, the researchers divided a beam of infrared light into two separate beams and forced each one along a different waveguide, which cause them to go out of phase with each other. Yale researcher Mo Li says the beams' interaction is controllable, which only becomes possible when light is fixed in the nanoscale waveguides that are placed in such close proximity to each other on the chip. "We've demonstrated that these are tunable forces we can engineer," says lead researcher Hong Tang. Tang speculates that the bipolar light force may one day control telecommunications devices that would have far lower power requirements but much faster speed than their present-day equivalents.
How New Technologies Will Ease Our Traffic Woes
New Scientist (07/15/09) Graham-Rowe, Duncan
A new generation of monitoring and data-gathering technologies could drastically alter how people travel by car by providing them with more accurate information on traffic conditions. These new technologies also could provide real-time advice on journey times and fuel consumption based on previous driving habits. In-car monitors could help safe drivers benefit from reduced insurance premiums by demonstrating to their insurance companies that they are at a lower risk of having an accident. Currently, most traffic monitoring is done using wire-induction loops buried under main roads, but traffic authorities want to build more sophisticated systems into existing road infrastructure. The University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory is exploring attaching wireless infrared sensors to lamp posts and stop lights, which already have built-in power sources. The University of California, Berkeley's Mobile Millennium project is working to gather information on vehicle speeds and traffic levels from global positioning system-enabled cell phones carried by drivers. The project blends encrypted location data with traffic information from other sources before broadcasting the results back to users' phones. Meanwhile, Microsoft has developed a system called JamBayes that continuously analyzes current and historical traffic patterns to make predictions about future road conditions, including journey times, congestion-free routes, and warnings to drivers about impending gridlock.
Touch Typists Could Help Stop Spammers in Their Tracks
Newcastle University (07/14/09)
Newcastle University computer scientists have developed Magic Bullet, a computer game that turns a tedious manual labeling task into entertainment, giving companies a better chance of tracking online spammers. To test the robustness of CAPTCHAs (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), which are widely used to prevent spammers from creating email accounts they can use to spread junk email, involves acquiring a set of labeled samples. However, it is difficult for computers to create the labels, so the task usually is completed by human researchers, which can be tedious and expensive. "For the first time, this simple game turns it into a fun experience with a serious application as it also achieves a labeling accuracy of as high as 98 percent," says Jeff Yan, leader of the effort. Magic Bullet players face each other in teams of two in an online shooting game. Teams and players cannot communicate with each other, and security techniques are used to ensure the players are geographically separated to reduce the chances of cheating. In each round, a randomly chosen segmented CAPTCHA character appears and will move toward the target only when both players correctly identify it before their opponents. The answers given by the winning team can serve as accurate labels for the segments. Yan says the average game session creates 25 correct labels per minute, which could be improved upon if touch typists played the game.
Tagging Technology to Track Trash
BBC News (07/14/09) Fildes, Jonathan
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers are leading the Trash Track project, an international effort to use small tracking tags to monitor the movement of trash in New York, Seattle, and London. Initially, 3,000 pieces of trash will be tagged and monitored. The project aims to make the garbage removal chain more transparent and allow consumers to see what happens to the items they throw out. To track how pieces of trash move around a city and beyond, the researchers developed a small mobile sensor that is attached to pieces of trash. Project member Carlo Ratti says the sensor is like a miniature cell phone with limited functionality. Each tag will continuously broadcast its location to a central server, where the results can be collected and plotted on a map in real time. The inexpensive technology could allow for trash such as electronic waste, which is often disposed of incorrectly, to be tracked worldwide, Ratti says. The team plans to tag a variety of trash, ranging from computers and cell phones to garden waste. The researchers say they have tried to limit the environmental impact of the study and of the technology and to limit the amount of extra waste the study contributes to the "removal chain." Ultimately, the team hopes that the tags can be made small and inexpensive enough to be attached to everything. "Think about a future where thanks to smart tags we will not have waste anymore," Ratti says. "Everything will be traceable."
Rethinking Code Optimization for Mobile and Multicore
InfoWorld (07/16/09) McAllister, Neil
The key to the creation of more efficient software for mobile platforms and multicore chips could lie in artificial intelligence (AI), and the MilePost project seeks to make this vision a reality. The project has devised an experimental version of the GNU Compiler Collection that employs AI to enhance the quality of its own output so that compiler developers can spend less time modifying compilers for particular platforms by allowing the compilers to do that by themselves. MilePost utilizes machine-learning methods to collect data on software performance and make appropriate adjustments to its outputted machine code. The compiler examines the source code input to find specific "features" that might be suitable candidates for optimization. Once a catalog of all the features present in a given program is organized, MilePost can use statistical methods to decide which optimizations will generate the best results and tweak its own modular design as appropriate. Early tests by IBM demonstrate that MilePost can upgrade performance by up to 18 percent compared to traditional compilers' code output. Code optimization becomes vital when focusing on mobile devices and other gadgets with low-powered processors and limited resources. Besides benefiting mobile devices, self-modifying compilers could help optimize software for multicore processors.
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