Welcome to the September 4, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Mystery of the Missing Women in Science
The New York Times (09/02/13) Natalie Angier
Although test scores prove that girls have science and math aptitude equal to that of boys, many girls choose not to pursue these fields. Average math scores for girls worldwide are equal to those of boys, and girls in U.S. high schools have higher grade point averages in math and science, with a 2.76 GPA compared with 2.56 for boys. Male and female ninth graders rated boys and girls equally competent in science and math in a 2009 study of more than 21,000 U.S. students by the University of Alabama's Anthony Derriso. The study also found that boys and girls were equally confident in their own math and science skills, and were equally likely to feel engaged in math and science and to feel supported by teachers, parents, and peers. However, among the 11 percent of students saying they were likely to pursue a scientific career, 61 percent were male. Boys with high scores on the math SAT express interest in majoring in the physical sciences, engineering, or computers, while their high-scoring female counterparts prefer economics, political science, or medicine, research shows. Women account for nearly 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees overall, but only 20 percent of computer science degrees, 20 percent of physics degrees, and 18 percent of engineering degrees.
U.S. Spy Agencies Mounted 231 Offensive Cyber-Operations in 2011, Documents Show
The Washington Post (08/30/13) Barton Gellman; Ellen Nakashima
U.S. intelligence services completed 231 offensive cyber operations in 2011, according to top-secret documents obtained by The Washington Post. That revelation provides new evidence that the Obama administration is increasingly trying to infiltrate and disrupt foreign computer networks. In addition, as part of a project code-named GENIE, U.S. cyberwarriors break into foreign networks so that they can be put under surreptitious U.S. control. GENIE, a $652-million project, has placed sophisticated malware in computers, routers, and firewalls on tens of thousands of foreign machines, according to budget documents. "The policy debate has moved so that offensive options are more prominent now," says former deputy defense secretary William J. Lynn III. "I think there's more of a case made now that offensive cyberoptions can be an important element in deterring certain adversaries." Of the 231 offensive operations conducted in 2011, about 75 percent were against top-priority targets, such as Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea. The U.S. government's cyberoperations include a National Security Agency group called Tailored Access Operations (TAO), which builds custom-fitted attack tools. TAO has developed software templates designed to break into common brands and models of "routers, switches, and firewalls," according to one document.
Global Patent Map Reveals the Structure of Technological Progress
Technology Review (09/02/13)
One lesson learned from the development of the Internet is that the best way to find something is via a network rather than the content, and technologies are now starting to apply a similar idea to patents. University of California, Santa Barbara's Luciano Kay and colleagues have developed a search tool that leverages the structure of links between patents to study the connection between technologies. The team has developed a network in which each patent consists of a node, and they assign a link between two nodes if one patent cites another and defines the technological distance between two map areas as the strength of the links between them. Their approach suggests that areas of this network are distant if they have few links but close if they have many links. To test the strategy, the team applied it to the entire body of patent data from 2000 to 2006 at the European Patent Office. They also have developed a tool for interrogating and visualizing the map, and the resulting patent maps provide insight into the structure of the technological landscape and the role of various players within it. The researchers' maps further reveal such things as the areas in which the companies have been working and the areas they are ignoring.
Privacy App Pinpoints Your Exact Location Using Social Media
Fast Company (09/03/13) Alice Truong
Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and the University of California, Berkeley say many people are unaware that metadata accompanying social media posts can be used to "cybercase" their homes. "You post a little tweet, which is just a couple characters, but in reality there's so much other data you're also posting," says ICSI's Gerald Friedland, who also is a lecturer at Berkeley. "Time, plus geolocation, can uniquely identify you." In August, researchers at ICSI and Berkeley presented findings on a hidden network of vendors who sell Twitter accounts, email addresses, and IP addresses. Using a U.S. National Science Foundation grant, the researchers also developed a privacy app called Ready or Not that creates a heat map of 30 days' worth of geographic coordinates taken from a user's Twitter or Instagram account; there are plans to integrate other social networks. The grant also helped furnish a website on social media privacy. Friedland notes that although the privacy project is targeted at high school students, parents also could benefit from it. "Sometimes parents might panic a little too much or not care, but we want to make sure people make an informed choice about their privacy settings," he says.
Leaked U.S. Spying Budget Reveals Investments in 'Groundbreaking' Cryptanalysis
IDG News Service (08/30/13) Lucian Constantin
The U.S. intelligence community is using about 20 percent of its $52.6 billion annual budget to fund cryptography-related programs and operations, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The documents are the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal summary for the National Intelligence Program, which encompasses 16 agencies and more than 107,000 employees. "We are bolstering our support for clandestine [signals intelligence] capabilities to collect against high-priority targets, including foreign leadership targets," says U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "Also, we are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic." The leaked budget reveals that the money is paid through a project called the Corporate Partner Access and was expected to cost $278 million during fiscal year 2013, confirming that cryptography and cryptanalysis are one of the U.S. intelligence community's highest priorities. Twenty-three percent of the approximately $11-billion 2013 budget for the Consolidated Cryptologic Program was intended for "collection and operations," and 15 percent was earmarked for "processing and exploitation." NSA's ability to intercept Internet traffic has led security analysts to speculate on the intelligence community's crypto-cracking capabilities.
Very Young Programmers
The New York Times (09/02/13) Lisa Guernsey
Efforts to teach young children coding skills are increasing as both the ability of children to program and the importance of learning at an early age continue to grow. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab developed a program 10 years ago called Scratch to help children aged eight and older learn to program, using colorful, stackable icons to represent the sequencing and logic. Today, more than 150 countries use the free program at thousands of schools, enabling third and fourth graders to become coders. A new program called Scratch Jr. now enables students in kindergarten through second grade to code. This year Scratch Jr. is being tested in several Massachusetts schools, in a project led by Tufts University professor Marina Umaschi Bers and MIT founder of the Scratch program Mitchel Resnick. As "a language of expression," programming is a natural fit for young students learning to express themselves, Bers says. A national campaign featuring celebrities including Ashton Kutcher is underway to encourage programming in public education. In addition, the Code.org website has a petition with about 780,000 digital signatures stating that all students should have the chance to learn to code.
Stanford Trio Explore Success Formula for Reddit Posts
Phys.Org (09/03/13) Nancy Owano
Stanford University researchers recently conducted a study examining what determines whether a Reddit post is successful or not. The researchers found that important factors include where the post is, when it is posted, and what title it is given. "In addition to the quality of the content itself, several factors, such as the way the content is presented [the title], the community it is posted to, whether it has been seen before, and the time it is posted determine its success," the researchers note. They first proposed a novel dataset of images posted to reddit.com, each of which had been submitted multiple times, with multiple titles. "We developed community models to account for effects other than the title, such as the choice of community the image is submitted to and the number of times it has been submitted," the researchers say. "We also developed language models that account for how the success of each submission was influenced by its title, and how well that title was targeted to the community." The models enabled the researchers to study features of a good title, and to understand when, where, and to whom a submission should be targeted. The researchers also found that positive sentiment contributes to a title's popularity in certain communities.
Windows 8 Picture Passwords Easily Cracked
InformationWeek (08/30/13) Thomas Claburn
Microsoft Windows 8's picture gesture authentication (PGA) system is not difficult to crack, according to security researchers from Arizona State and Delaware State universities. The researchers say their experimental model and attack framework enabled it to crack 48 percent of passwords for previously unseen pictures in one dataset and 24 percent in another, in a paper presented at the recent Usenix Conference in August. The researchers also believe their results could be improved with a larger training set and stronger picture-categorization and computer-vision techniques. Windows 8 offers gesture-based passwords and traditional text-based passwords. Setting up a gesture-based password involves choosing a photo from the Picture Library folder and drawing three points on the image to be stored as grid coordinates. However, users tend to pick common points of interest, such as eyes, faces, or discrete objects, and the passwords derived from this constrained set have much less variability than randomly generated passwords. The researchers suggest Microsoft could implement a picture-password-strength meter, and integrate its PGA attack framework to inform users of the potential number of guesses it would take to access the system.
Advancing Graphene for Post-Silicon Computer Logic
UCR Today (09/03/13) Sean Nealon
University of California, Riverside researchers have demonstrated that the negative differential resistance experimentally observed in graphene field-effect transistors allows for the construction of viable non-Boolean computational architectures with gap-less graphene. "Instead of trying to change graphene, we changed the way the information is processed in the circuits," says Riverside professor Alexander Balandin. He says the technique involves using specific current-voltage characteristics of graphene for constructing the architecture, which utilizes the principles of the non-linear networks. The physical processes leading to unusual electrical characteristics were simulated using atomistic models developed by Riverside researcher Sonia Ahsan. The atomistic models show that the negative differential resistance appears in microscopic graphene devices as well as at the nanometer-scale, which the researchers say would allow for the development of extremely small and low-power circuits. "Most researchers have tried to change graphene to make it more like conventional semiconductors for applications in logic circuits," Balandin says. "We decided to take an alternative approach." The researchers say their technique provides an alternative route for using graphene in information processing.
Biodiversity App Logs Insects By Their Telltale Call
New Scientist (08/29/13) Paul Marks
University of Southampton researchers have developed Cicada Hunt, a smartphone app that is designed to listen for the call of the endangered New Forest cicada. The app also can be trained to detect other animals, including birds, bats, grasshoppers, and crickets. After the app has recognized the insect's call, it sounds an alert to tell the user to record a brief sound clip that can be emailed to researchers, who then create a heat map of the insect's spread. "It has to easily differentiate between the cicada, which has a constant song, and other common insects, particularly the dark bush cricket, which chirps," notes Southampton researcher Alex Rogers. In tests on a known population in Slovenia, the app successfully identified the cicada, Rogers adds. The researchers are now updating the app to identify 20 grasshopper and cricket species, as well as birdsongs. Scientists say the app could have wide applications. "If their technique can be generalized to identify the sounds of any animal and not just cicadas, then I think the stage is set for some kind of 'animal shazam' service that will tell you what crickets are chirping in your backyard, or what shrieking bird just woke you up at 4 a.m.," says iNaturalist.org biologist Kenichi Ueda.
Mapping the Twitterverse
USC Dornsife (08/27/13) Michelle Salzman Boston
University of Southern California (USC) researchers are studying how much public geospatial data is generated by Twitter users and how that information could be used by third parties. Twitter has about 500 million active users, and reports show that about 6 percent opt in to allow the platform to broadcast their location using global positioning system (GPS) technology, for a total of about 30 million users sending geo-tagged data. "There is all sorts of information that can be gleaned from things outside of the tweet itself," says USC's Chris Weidemann, who developed the Twitter2GIS app, which analyzes the geospatial data that Twitter users generate. Twitter2GIS uses Twitter's application programming interface (API) and Google's Geocoding API to collect tweets from either geographic regions or a specific Twitter user. During a sampling period, an average of 4 million Twitter users revealed their physical locations through GPS coordinates or other active location monitoring, and corporations could potentially build profiles of individuals for marketing purposes with such information. Weidemann is expanding the app to enable Twitter users to log in with their profile credentials and view their Twitter geospatial footprint.
Skype Eye Contact Finally Possible
ETH Life (08/27/13) Angelika Jacobs
A software prototype from ETH Zurich's Computer Graphics Laboratory could make videoconferencing more realistic for home users. The lack of eye contact is believed to be a key reason why videoconferencing does not have the feel of a real conversation, as speakers mainly look at their counterpart's picture instead of the camera. Large companies have the resources to pursue solutions to this problem, essentially creating artificial eye contact during videoconferences by investing in technology that uses complex mirror systems or several cameras and special software. ETH Zurich's Claudia Kuster and colleagues have designed software to recognize the face in the video and rotate it so that the person appears to be looking at the camera. Using a Kinect camera, the system creates a depth map calculated from image information and a program that recognizes faces in real time. The software can handle changing light conditions and even two faces at the same time. The team wants the software to work for mobile devices with standard webcams and to develop a Skype plugin.
Quantum Cryptography Is Safe Again
Science (08/29/13) Jon Cartwright
Two separate groups of physicists have proven the real-world efficacy of a protocol introduced last year by University of Toronto physicists that theoretically closed a loophole in quantum cryptography. In 2010, researchers proved that hackers could breach a quantum cryptography system by exploiting a weakness in the avalanche photodiodes (APDs) that detect individual photons. Because APDs react differently to intense pulses of light than to single photons, the energy of the pulse must exceed a threshold to register a hit. As a result, a hacker could intercept single photons, estimate measurements of their polarizations, and send answers to the intended recipient as new, brighter pulses. Last year, University of Toronto physicist Hoi-Kwong and colleagues said the problem could be resolved if two parties engaging in quantum cryptography began the quantum key process by sending randomly polarized signals to a third party. The third party would measure the signals to determine whether the polarizations were at right angles, but not the actual polarization. With a third party comparing photon polarizations without determining what they are, no photon splitting or half-strength signals could occur and no tampering could go unnoticed. Scientists at the University of Calgary and the University of Science and Technology of China have carried out independent experiments that prove Lo's theory.
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