Welcome to the March 20, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Cyberattack on Florida Election Is First Known Case in U.S., Experts Say
NBC News (03/18/13) Gil Aegerter
The first known cyberattack on an online election system occurred last year in Florida's Miami-Dade County primary election, when a computer program sent more than 2,500 phantom requests for absentee ballots to the elections website from IP addresses in Ireland, England, India and other overseas locations. The county's software noticed the requests and elections workers rejected them, and the goal of the attack remains unknown. Overseas anonymizers concealed the originating computers' locations and prevented law enforcement from pinpointing culprits, leading the state attorney’s office to close the case in January. However, the investigation has been reopened following a Miami Herald report that three IP addresses in the United States were identified among those sending the requests and that investigators did not receive that information in a timely manner. The incident highlights the risk of online voting and registration, experts say. "In this case the attack was not as sophisticated as it could have been, and it was easy for elections officials to spot and turn back," says University of Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman. “An attack somewhat more sophisticated than the one in Florida, completely within the norm for computer fraud these days, would likely be able to circumvent the checks."
Web Pioneers Win Inaugural $1.5M Engineering Prize
Agence France-Presse (03/18/13)
The inaugural Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will go to Internet and World Wide Web pioneers Robert Kahn, Vinton Cerf, and Marc Andreessen of the United States, Louis Pouzin of France, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee of Britain. Created a year ago, the prize is an attempt to boost the profile of the industry. Queen Elizabeth II will present the award to Kahn, Cerf, Andreessen, Pouzin, and Berners-Lee in a formal ceremony in June, and they will share a $1.5 million prize. Teams of people from around the world were involved in the development of the Internet and the Web, notes Alec Broers, chair of the judging panel. "However, these five visionary engineers, never before honored together as a group, led the key developments that shaped the Internet and Web as a coherent system and brought them into public use." The award could help bring greater recognition to the revolutionary impact the industry has on people's lives. "We need more skilled engineers to solve the world's most pressing problems, which requires not only excellent education and inspirational role models, but more attention focused on highlighting the wonders of modern engineering, wherever they may be," says the award's director Anji Hunter.
Deleted Cloud Files Can Be Recovered From Smartphones, Researchers Find
University of Glasgow researchers were able to fully retrieve images, audio files, PDFs, and Word documents deleted from Dropbox, Box, and SugarSync, using both an HTC Android smartphone and an iPhone running iOS Version 3. They generated 20 distinct files of varying types, uploaded them to those services from a Windows 7 PC, and synced up the files with their test devices. The researchers then accessed and manipulated the files, and processed the devices with Universal Forensic Extraction Device. Afterwards, they employed forensic tools to extract the files and artifacts from the resulting memory dumps. The researchers successfully recovered metadata from all of the applications on both smartphones, and they determined that fewer files could be retrieved from applications whose caches had been cleared. Another factor affecting retrieval was user actions on certain file types. "For example, if a file has been viewed using the smartphone, there is the opportunity for it to be recovered using forensic toolkits...provided that the user has not deleted the file or cleared the application's cache," the researchers note. The research illustrates security gaps in end-user mobile devices and file-sharing services that are widely used both for work and leisure.
Meet Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Anyone Can Code
Wired News (03/19/13) Cade Metz
Lua, a 20-year-old programming language, has been opened up to the public so that anyone can build material on Wikipedia and its sister websites. “We wanted to provide editors with a real programming language,” says the Wikimedia Foundation's Rob Lanphier. “This will make things easier for editors, but it will also be significantly faster.” Wikipedia editors previously used templates to reuse material on multiple pages across the site, but that process bogged down the editing process as they accumulated. “The template language evolved into something like a programming language, but it was never designed to be a programming language,” Lanphier notes. The foundation thus migrated to Lua, a scripting language developed to automate the execution of frequently repeated tasks. Wikimedia selected Lua on the merit of it being specifically designed for embedding code and because it enables site administrators to carefully control how that code is carried out. “We’re able to constrain things such that we don’t have to worry about an author accidentally--or on purpose--changing an article in such a way that it brings down our servers,” Lanphier says. He also notes that anyone can teach themselves Lua programming by viewing a sample code embedded in an existing article.
Bringing a Virtual Brain to Life
New York Times (03/18/13) Tim Requarth
Henry Markram's Human Brain Project brings together more than 150 institutions to create a virtual brain, a controversial effort that critics say is not possible in the 10-year time frame of a recent $1.3 billion European Union grant. Early in his career, Markram made a famous discovery pertaining to how the brain learns cause and effect. The experiment led Markram to realize that experimenting on two neurons at a time was not sufficient to make real progress linking neurons to behavior. This led to his 2008 creation of Blue Brain, a digital facsimile of a cylindrical piece of tissue in the rat cortex. By 2011, Markram and his colleagues said they had simulated a virtual slice of brain tissue with one million neurons. Markram then proposed the larger-scale Human Brain Project, increasing the scale of Blue Brain to model the human brain. Markram believes the Human Brain Project will offer a “unifying principle” for scientists, centralizing data from around the world. The project aims to fuel major advances in computing and robotics, with one branch dedicated to creating intelligent robots with neuromorphic microchips designed like human neurons.
Sequester Cuts University Research Funds
Washington Post (03/16/13) Nick Anderson
The federal government is reducing support for academic laboratories across the United States to satisfy the sequester mandate to cut spending. Although about $30 billion in federal funding recently has gone to universities for research and development each year, the federal budget sequester is likely to shrink that amount by more than $1 billion. Opponents to the spending cuts say they could hinder U.S. leadership in science and engineering. The U.S. National Science Foundation says it expects to make 1,000 fewer grants this year than it normally makes. The sequester also makes it harder for students to enter doctoral programs in science and engineering. Universities are urging Congress to stop the sequester because it jeopardizes the discovery and innovation that drive economic growth. "To put it kindly, this is an irrational approach to deficit reduction," says Association of American Universities president Hunter R. Rawlings III. "To put it not so kindly, it is just plain stupid." Federal funding for university research has a long history of bipartisan support. "We are concerned that we don’t see more of a cooperative spirit in Washington," says Dennis Hall, Vanderbilt’s vice provost for research. "It's a little scary."
Carnegie Mellon, NSA Seek High School Hackers
Associated Press (03/15/13) Kevin Begos
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the U.S. National Security Agency recently launched Toaster Wars, a free, online high school hacking competition. The game is designed to be fun and challenging, but also aims to help participants consider computer security as an excellent career choice, says CMU professor David Brumley. "The government has a huge number of concerns," Brumley says. "Computer security isn't growing fast enough to keep up with all the threats. If you call any business, they're going to say we can't hire enough security people." The Toaster Wars contest is a capture-the-flag-type game, with pieces of information encrypted into the game. The game includes computer forensics, cryptography, Web exploitation, and binary exploitation. The game was designed to hold the interest of aspiring young hackers, as well as provide a legal forum for developing cybersecurity skills. "We do both offense and defense. We think that brings an additional level of excitement," Brumley says. "That's how you get intuition on how to solve problems." The contest will run from April 26 to May 6, and any U.S. student or team in grades six through 12 can participate.
In the Developing World, MOOCs Start to Get Real
Technology Review (03/15/13) Jessica Leber
Supporters of massive open online courses (MOOCs) have touted their potential to revolutionize access to higher education in developing countries, but analysts say several obstacles remain. Online education platforms such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity have made tremendous progress in nations such as India and Brazil, but in the world's poorest areas even reliable high-speed Internet access is a challenge. In addition, MOOCs are primarily led by U.S. universities, and efforts must be made to customize content to global students with diverse backgrounds. Some MOOCs are collaborating with international universities; for example edX last year partnered with Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. MOOCs also are grappling with how to provide real-world certifications to students in any location. Generation Rwanda is launching a pilot program of a purely MOOC-based university that could be the first of its kind. Costs and the need for teaching assistant expertise are likely to diminish as data mining improves, enabling MOOCs to understand areas of student difficulty, notes Generation Rwanda executive director Jamie Hodari. Generation Rwanda plans to create a 400-person university that uses teaching fellows to guide students who receive their lessons from MOOCs. Hodari notes Southern New Hampshire University has agreed to test and certify associates degrees.
Big Data Roadblocks Will Slow Driverless Cars Until 2040, Analyst Says
Network World (03/15/13) Colin Neagle
Despite aggressive predictions on the time frame for mainstream adoption of driverless cars due to progress in autonomous vehicle technology, some experts say privacy concerns and other issues might delay widespread adoption until 2040. Google's promising driverless car prototype prompted the company to forecast that autonomous cars will be on the road within three to five years, while Ford Motor executive chairman Bill Ford predicts the technology will be commonplace on U.S. roadways by 2025. However, IDC's Sheila Brennan says that although the cars will be street-ready in the next few years, regulatory, cybersecurity, privacy, safety, and interoperability issues will slow adoption for many years to come. A critical issue in consumer adoption will be the use of data collected by autonomous vehicles, which includes the car's destinations, speed, and component functioning. Manufacturers are likely to request privacy waivers, as one car maker already has done. Consumer attitudes toward privacy might soften as social media accustoms users to handing over data, but conversely the rise of big data might increase sensitivity toward the issue, Brennan says. Vehicle data will be sought by car companies, insurers, advertisers, and municipalities, making data-sharing agreements a potentially profitable proposition.
Are You Paying Attention? Computer Says No
Herald Scotland (03/18/13)
A computer system developed by scientists at St. Andrews University keeps users focused on their work by replacing the regular screen image with a calm and non-distracting visualization of the screen's activity. The multi-display system fades out part of the screen that remains static and subtly visualizes changes in the display over time, but quickly returns to the actual screen content when the user looks back at the display. A camera mounted on top of each computer screen uses algorithms to identify the user's eyes, enabling the interactive system, called Diff Displays, to determine when the person is looking away from the display. A test conducted over a single work week showed the system reduced the number of times someone switched their attention between displays. The team believes the system could reduce workplace distractions, boost productivity, and be useful in high-pressure environments such as flight-control rooms.
Smartphones Can Help Us Keep Stress at Bay
New Scientist (03/18/13) Jon White
University of Cambridge researcher Dirk Trossen has created the AIRS app, which uses all of the sensors built into mobile devices to measure physical changes in the user. There are more than 60 values AIRS can record, including surrounding noise level, social activity, changing environmental conditions, and posture. "You can also track moods expressed through emoticons, and use attached monitors to provide pulse and heart-rate data," Trossen notes. Essex University researchers have developed a program that analyzes AIRS data and creates a story-inspired visualization on a computer. Trossen says the goal is to get away from preconceived notions of what is an important indicator of stress, such as heart rate, and to make users aware of the ways stress can negatively impact them. "The fact that today's workforce is likely to work longer than the previous generation increases the importance of stress management as an aspect of general well-being," Trossen says. "We want users to be aware of the ways stress can negatively impact them." Using available mobile technology, the researchers hope to ultimately reduce the burden on healthcare systems.
Where Are the Cyber Pros?
Federal Computer Week (03/14/13) Amber Corrin
The U.S. government has made progress on building a cyber workforce but continues to face several hurdles. Requirements are constantly shifting due to rapidly changing technologies and threats, formal training remains in the early stages of widespread availability, and the specialty is not well-defined. The biggest challenge might be the budget climate and the uncertainty of funding. Some observers note that the right mix of technical skills and soft skills is needed, and the right kind of employee is needed across government, not just the Pentagon. Others say the scale of the issue is a source of frustration, considering the demand is for a global population. "This is really a global issue...the Internet and cyberspace really doesn't respect anybody's national boundaries," says the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Ernest McDuffie. National Cyber Security Alliance executive director Michael Kaiser also sees the issue as a matter of cultural change in education, technology, and security--and where they intersect. "This is about shifting our culture in the way we educate people to defend our country," Kaiser says.
Finally, a Robot Chimp That Turns Into a Tank
Time (03/14/13) Matt Peckham
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge launched in April 2012, and now some of the contestants are starting to reveal aspects of their projects. For example, the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) team is developing an ape-like robot, called CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP), with tank treads undergirding all four limbs. "Though the appearance of...CHIMP is vaguely simian, its normal mode of locomotion will be much like that of a tank, with the tracks of all four limbs on the ground," the team says. CHIMP's drive joints allow it to grasp objects like a human, and the tank treads allow it to navigate complex environments while maintaining its balance. "CHIMP is designed with static stability; it won’t fall down even if it experiences a computer glitch or power failure," says CMU researcher Tony Stentz. CHIMP also features near-human strength and dexterity, employs sensors to render its surroundings in texture-mapped 3D, and its human operator can use the 3D imagery relayed by CHIMP to choose whether to manually maneuver the robot or allow CHIMP to work autonomously.
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