Welcome to the May 8, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
U.S. Is Weighing Wide Overhaul of Wiretap Laws
New York Times (05/07/13) Charlie Savage
The Obama administration reportedly is ready to back a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plan for a significant overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet. FBI director Robert S. Mueller has pushed for legal mandates requiring Internet companies to build into their instant-messaging and similar systems a capacity to comply with wiretap orders. Although previous proposals have been held back by concerns from other agencies, the new proposal focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders. The proposal is designed to make it easier on small startups, but it is expected to ignite a debate on the future of the Internet. "I think the FBI's proposal would render Internet communications less secure and more vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves," says the Center for Democracy and Technology's Gregory T. Nojeim. However, the FBI says the proposal is only designed to strengthen wiretap orders issued by judges and prevent suspects from "going dark" by using Internet-based communications channels. “This doesn't create any new legal surveillance authority,” says the FBI's Andrew Weissmann. "None of the ‘going dark' solutions would do anything except update the law given means of modern communications."
Google's Chief Internet Evangelist on Creating the Interplanetary Internet
Wired News (05/06/13) Adam Mann
Google chief Internet evangelist and ACM president Vint Cerf has been working for years on an interplanetary Internet with protocols capable of handling a space environment. Together with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf has created an early-stage space-based network with a few nodes that he says are “the front end of what could be an evolving and expanding interplanetary backbone.” The project began in 1997 when Cerf considered what the Internet might need in 25 years, and concluded that NASA and other space-faring agencies would need greater networking capabilities. Communications capabilities for space exploration so far have been almost entirely limited to point-to-point radio links. Cerf's team has developed the Bundle protocols, which are similar to Internet packets that can be very large and are transmitted like bundles of information via "storing forward." The interplanetary protocol has the capacity to store a large amount of data for a long time prior to transmission. If the protocol is adopted by the Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems, which standardizes space communication protocols, then all robotic and manned space missions will have the option of using these protocols.
Mood-Tracking App Paves Way for Pocket Therapy
University of Cambridge (05/08/13) Tom Kirk
University of Cambridge researchers have developed Emotion Sense, a smartphone app that mines a user's cellphone data to track their feelings and determine what might be triggering peaks in their mood. The app takes advantage of smartphones' increasing ability to collect information about the environment. Emotion Sense combines systematically-gathered data from a wide range of sensors with the user’s own report about their mood, which is entered through a system designed by psychologists. By cross-referencing both sets of data, Emotion Sense aims to accumulate a very precise record of what drives people’s emotional peaks. "In the long term, we hope to be able to extract that data so that, for example, it can be used for therapeutic purposes," says Cambridge researcher Neal Lathia. After launching Emotion Sense, the app spends about a week collecting data from a single sensor and testing it against the user’s emotional state. The user is then asked to complete a short life-satisfaction survey, which unlocks a new sensor. After about eight weeks, a full range of sensors have been tested. The researchers are making Emotion Sense's code available as open source to enable other researchers to conduct their own experiments.
Google Glass Picks Up Early Signal: Keep Out
Wall Street Journal (05/06/13) David Streitfeld
Privacy concerns are mounting about Google Glass, a computer worn like glasses that provides Internet access, takes photos, and records short films. Although the wearable computer is widely anticipated, it has been preemptively banned in some locations, including parts of Las Vegas, and West Virginia is pursuing legislation to outlaw its use while driving. “We are thinking very carefully about how we design Glass because new technology always raises new issues,” says Google's Courtney Hohne. Users must speak or touch the device to activate it, and look directly at a person to take a photograph or video, but privacy advocates are concerned about the device's potential impact on people's privacy in public places. For example, controversy arose over a recent incident at a PyCon developers conference when one attendee posted a photo of two men making inappropriate jokes on Twitter, resulting in one man's dismissal from his job. Nevertheless, developers are already working on new applications that will test the limits of Glass. For example, a developer has created a program that enables users to take pictures with Glass by winking. "Google Glass will test the right to privacy versus the First Amendment,” says George Washington University's Bradley Shear.
U.S. Directly Blames China’s Military for Cyberattacks
New York Times (05/07/13) David E. Sanger
The U.S. Defense Department's yearly report to Congress accuses China's military of launching attacks on U.S. government computer systems and defense contractors. Although the report says China's primary goal is stealing U.S. industrial technologies, numerous intrusions appear to be attempts to gain insights into American policymakers' views. The report warns that such information gathering could be used for “building a picture of U.S. network defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.” The report also warns that China is investing in electronic warfare capabilities capable of blinding U.S. satellites and other space assets, and ultimately wants to use electronic and traditional weapons systems to push the American military presence into the mid-Pacific, which is approximately 2,000 miles from China's coast. A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the report, which does not provide any information on the U.S. government's efforts to develop cyberdefense and cyberweapons. The report also argues that cyberweapons have become integral to China's military strategy, noting that two of its military doctrines cite "information warfare as integral to achieving information superiority and an effective means for countering a stronger foe."
This Box Keeps Information Flowing During a Crisis
Technology Review (05/05/13) David Talbot
The creators of Ushahidi, a software platform for communicating information during a crisis, have developed BRCK, a Wi-Fi router that can connect with any network in the world, can provide eight hours of wireless connectivity, and can be programmed for new applications. The BRCK device can serve up to 20 devices when there is an Internet connection and connects to a cloud-based server that enables any BRCK user to monitor its performance remotely and manage alerts. The device also is programmable, apps can be written for it, and it comes with up to 16 GB of storage. "Once you understand what the product does--provides a reliable connectivity backup in places where power and connectivity are spotty--it's hard to understand why no one has built the tool before," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Ethan Zuckerman, who serves on the board of Ushahidi. The nonprofit company says the purpose behind BRCK was to build the world's most simple, reliable, and rugged Internet connection device, but with sophisticated cloud-based features. “No other single device does these off-grid communications, software cloud access, and remote management of sensors connected to it,” says Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman.
National Science Foundation Announces Projects to Expand the Frontiers of Cyber-Physical Systems
National Science Foundation (05/03/13)
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced two grants to support multi-university projects in cyber-physical systems (CPS). "Advances in CPS hold the potential to reshape our world with more responsive, precise, and efficient systems that augment human capabilities, work in dangerous or inaccessible environments, provide large-scale, distributed coordination, and enhance societal well-being," says NSF's Farnam Jahanian. One grant is for the Foundations of Resilient Cyber-Physical Systems (FORCES) project, which is being conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Vanderbilt University, and the University of Michigan. The FORCES project is testing different theories to determine the most efficient approach to designing and operating CPS. "Integrating economic analysis with resilient control for cyber-physical systems is a pioneering approach that promises to greatly improve CPS performance for society at large," says Berkeley's S. Shankar Sastry. The other grant is for the Correct-by-Design Control Software Synthesis for Highly Dynamic Systems project, which is being conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan; the University of California, Los Angeles; Texas A&M University, and Carnegie Mellon University. The project aims to streamline the production of CPS by developing sophisticated methods for synthesizing control software for engineered systems.
Need a Shot of Creative Juices? Call the Crowd
New Scientist (05/02/13) Paul Marks
Researchers are developing tools to harness crowdsourcing technology for creative pursuits. For example, Wish is an interface that enables users of desktop software to access crowd intelligence from within an application. "Because it is embedded in the interface of a creative tool like Photoshop, a word processor, or something more, Wish provides a natural amplification of the user's creative ability," says Wish developer Anand Kulkarni. Meanwhile, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the Stevens Institute of Technology are using a combination of crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence software to enhance creativity. The researchers give members of a crowd the task of inventing a novel device, and once the designs have been submitted, an evolutionary algorithm develops the ideas. The algorithm mimics natural selection, and randomly mutates aspects of the designs, attempting to create devices that better satisfy pre-determined parameters and goals. "What they have done is pull out the new and creative bits and then pushed the crowd in more interesting and novel directions," says the University of Copenhagen's Mark Nelson.
A Noteworthy App
KTH Royal Institute of Technology (05/02/13) Katarina Ahlfort
KTH Royal Institute of Technology researchers have developed ScoreCleaner Notes, an app that can instantly score any melody and share it with other users. Users can play music, hum, or sing the melody of a song into the mobile device's microphone, and the app automatically displays the musical notation on the screen with the correct key, tempo, and time signature. "This app has the potential to unleash the creativity of musicians and music teachers worldwide," says KTH's Sven Emtell. He notes that ScoreCleaner has already been adopted by professional musicians and by elementary school music programs. Emtell also says ScoreCleaner Notes is superior to using a voice memo recorder for short musical passages. In addition, the KTH researchers developed ScoreCleaner Notes Desktop, a computer program version of the application that works like Google Translate for music. The researchers say the software understands and writes more complicated musical passages with multiple notes. When a synthesizer is connected to the computer, the program automatically writes out the music with pitch and note values.
MIT News (05/01/13) Larry Hardesty
As society grows increasingly specialized, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems have released a series of theoretical analyses suggesting that versatility could positively impact operations management, cloud computing, and health care provision. Last year, MIT graduate student Kuang Xu and his adviser, professor John Tsitsiklis, published a paper modeling problems such as requests arriving at a bank of network servers, demonstrating that if a small percentage of servers, or call-center reps, can respond to a variety of requests, an exponential reduction in delays will occur. This summer at the annual meeting of ACM’s Special Interest Group on Performance Evaluation, Xu and Tsitsiklis will present a follow-up paper in which all the network servers, or call center reps, are versatile. Their new paper also suggests that versatility greatly improves results. For example, employing servers that can each handle a few different types of requests can nearly eliminate delays. However, Tsitsiklis notes that an individual server's versatility is no guarantee of short wait times. "You also need a clever scheduling algorithm,” he says. "That’s the hard part."
Living in 'The Matrix' Requires Less Brain Power
Science (05/02/13) Lizzie Wade
Neurons called place cells in rat brains function differently when the animals are in virtual reality than when they are in the real world, according to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Place cells, which fire in response to specific physical locations in the outside world, are triggered to fire via visual cues, self-motion cues on how the body moves in space, and proximal cues such as the smell of a bakery. UCLA neurophysicist Mayank Mehta studied the place cells in rats running along a real, linear track compared with place cells in rats running in virtual reality, and found that the place cells in the virtual reality rats fired at only about half the rate of the real-world rats. The place cells also behaved differently in virtual reality. Instead of firing a second time when the rat reached the same point on its return trip, the place cells fired when the rat was two steps away from the track's opposite end. This suggests that instead of encoding a position in absolute space as happens in the real world, the place cells in virtual reality record relative distance, which Mehta attributes to the absence of proximal cues in the virtual environment.
Cyberthreats Must Require Governments and Businesses to Be 'Cyberrisk Intelligent'
Rice University (05/01/13) Jeff Falk
Risk-intelligence governance is essential to protect digital communications and resources from cyberspying, theft, and attack, according to a new paper from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Organizations should use a general “cyberrisk intelligence” framework to understand all the factors that effect an organization’s capacity to secure its cyberinfrastructure, the paper suggests. “In cyberdefense activities, the typical mindset has been one in which risks are identified and mitigated based on known vulnerabilities and threats," says the paper's author and Baker Institute information technology policy fellow Christopher Bronk. "Where organizations often fall short is in pulling together all the different inputs in understanding their vulnerabilities.” Bronk suggests a holistic identification and mitigation model that considers cybersecurity within the organization's larger context. He proposes three general flows of information for the cyberrisk intelligence framework, including "one that encompasses the awareness of the IT enterprise and its apparent health; a second that brings internal business activities into view; and a third that encompasses broader geopolitical and economic forces.” Bronk says organizations also should participate in industry-wide efforts to identify security concerns and unite to address those concerns collaboratively.
Older Is Wiser: Study Shows Software Developers' Skills Improve Over Time
NCSU News (04/29/13) Matt Shipman
A study by researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) suggests older programmers are keeping up with changes in the field and even have a slight edge over younger peers in some cases. The team examined the profiles of more than 80,000 programmers as well as their reputation score on a site called StackOverFlow. The findings show that an individual's reputation increases at least into their 40s. There was a sharp decline in the number of subjects addressed by programmers between the ages of 15 and 30, but the range of subjects steadily increased for those in their 30s and into their early 50s. For technologies that have been around less than 10 years, programmers older than 37 had a significant edge in knowledge of iOS and Windows Phone 7, but there was no statistically significant difference for any other technology, from Django to Silverlight. “We wanted to explore these perceptions of veteran programmers as being out of step with emerging technologies and see if we could determine whether older programmers are actually keeping up with changes in the field,” says NCSU professor Emerson Murphy-Hill. “The data doesn't support the bias against older programmers--if anything, just the opposite."
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