Welcome to the October 16, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A Day to Remember the First Computer Programmer Was a Woman
The New York Times (10/15/13) Claire Cain Miller
Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program in 1842, a feat that is commemorated on Oct. 15. However, 171 years later most programmers are men, and just 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women, according to Symantec and the Anita Borg Institute, which works to recruit and promote women in tech. Women software developers also earn only 80 percent of what male developers do for the same job, and just 5 percent of venture-backed technology startups are founded by women. Since girls begin to move away from computer science when they are young, most likely due to a lack of role models, it might help to educate young girls about Lovelace. As Lovelace's history indicates, women have played a significant role in the software industry, and some say the tide is changing again in Silicon Valley. "There's a lot more focus than we've seen in the past, and a lot more hard conversations," says Anita Borg Institute executive director Tell Whitney. In addition, the wage gap between men and women is smaller in technology and engineering fields than it is in other fields, and there are many job opportunities, according to the Symantec and Anita Borg Institute report.
Researchers Create Indelible Record on Mankind for Aliens to Someday Find
Computerworld (10/14/13) Lucas Mearian
Researchers at the University of Twente and the Feriburg Institute have found that by using tungsten and silicon nitride as a storage medium, they can store data that will last least a million years. The researchers propose using the medium to retain data on human physiology that could be seen long after the human race is extinct. The nearly indestructible disks consist of a 338-nanometer (nm) layer of silicon nitride on top of a silicon wafer, as well as a 50nm layer of tungsten patterned into quick response (QR) codes using optical etching lithography. The researchers chose QR codes because they can be easily read by machines using simple scanners. The researchers chose to use write-once, read-many technology because they wanted to create an indelible record that would stand the test of time over millions of years. The storage medium was created as part of the Human Document Project, an initiative started by a consortium of European institutions with the goal of developing a digital library that would last for thousands of years. After rigorous testing, "we observe no visible degradation of the sample, which indicates that this sample would still be error-free after 1 million years," the researchers say.
NSA Collects Millions of Email Address Books Globally
The Washington Post (10/14/13) Barton Gellman; Ashkan Soltani
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal email and instant messaging accounts worldwide, many of which belong to Americans, according to senior intelligence officials and top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The collection program analyzes email address books and "buddy lists" from instant messaging services via secret arrangements with foreign telecommunications companies or allied intelligence services in control of facilities that direct Internet traffic. An analysis of that data enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships within a group of foreign intelligence targets. Each day NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services, as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based email accounts. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence's Shawn Turner says the agency "is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets like terrorists, human traffickers, and drug smugglers. We are not interested in personal information about ordinary Americans." However, intelligence officials acknowledge that although the data collection effort takes place overseas, the program captures the contact information of millions of U.S. citizens. A senior official says individual privacy is protected because "we have checks and balances built into our tools."
Growing Backlash to Government Surveillance
Associated Press (10/14/13) Martha Mendoza
Opposition to government surveillance is rising amid ongoing National Security Agency surveillance leaks, with countermeasures such as new encrypted email programs and tools designed to confuse online spies emerging online. Efforts range from political statements to sophisticated technological efforts to thwart surveillance. Developer Jeff Lyon in Santa Clara, CA, created the Flagger program to adds words such as "blow up" and "pressure cooker" to Web addresses that people visit, which he says 2,000 users have installed. "The goal here is to get a critical mass of people flooding the Internet with noise and make a statement of civil disobedience," Lyon says. Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins is using encrypted email and browsers. "Encryption loses its value as an indicator of possible malfeasance if everyone is using it," Higgins says. Free encryption service Pretty Good Privacy was loaded about 600 times a day in the month prior to the initial NSA revelations, and two months later the figure rose to 1,380, notes programmer Kristian Fiskerstrand. "It's going to take a groundswell of support from lots of Americans across the political spectrum communicating that business as usual is no longer okay, and they won't buy the argument that liberty and security are mutually exclusive," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Code.org Aims to Introduce More Than 10M Students to Computer Programming
ZDNet (10/14/13) Rachel King
Code.org has unveiled "Hour of Code," an initiative that aims to enhance computer science education for more than 10 million students worldwide by taking them through an hour-long introduction to computer programming. The global campaign is the organization's first step in establishing computer science as a fundamental field in education, says Code.org CEO and co-founder Hadi Partovi. "I firmly believe that bringing computer science education to every student is the gift that the tech industry owes America," Partovi says. Code.org also wants to help fill the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) gap in the job market. As part of its effort to narrow the STEM gap, the Hour of Code initiative also is open to educators. The initiative's game-like tutorials will offer an introduction to the basics of coding to both students and teachers. There also will be several prizes awarded, including 10GB of free Dropbox storage space to the first 100,000 participating educators. In addition, students who take a follow-on course online will have a chance to win Skype credits or online gift cards. The Hour of Code project will last through Computer Science Education Week, which takes place Dec. 9-15.
Cyber Warrior Shortage Hits Anti-Hacker Fightback
Reuters (10/13/13) Peter Apps; Brenda Goh; Jim Finkle
The increasing activities of cybercriminals has led to a growing need for cybersecurity specialists, but the demand has far outpaced the number of those qualified to do the job, leading to a staffing crunch. "As with anything, it really comes down to human capital and there simply isn't enough of it," says Truman National Security Project fellow Chris Finan. Global losses from cyberattacks are in the range of $80 billion to $400 billion annually, according to research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As a result, the number of IT security roles in the U.S. will increase by about 22 percent in the decade to 2020, creating 65,700 new jobs, estimates the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Recruitment and retention in cyber is a challenge for everybody working in this area," says Finmeccanica's Mike Bradshaw. "It's an area where demand exceeds supply...it's going to take a while for supply to catch up." Although the private sector offers hefty salaries for IT security specialists, the government still can hold onto some talent by appealing to their sense of public service and patriotism. There also is an expectation that government employees can transition to more lucrative private-sector jobs after several years in public service.
Privacy Fears Grow as Cities Increase Surveillance
The New York Times (10/13/13) Somini Sengupta
Cities across the United States are increasingly using big data for law enforcement through federally funded projects, raising concerns about the ability of technology to help the government track the details of citizens' lives. Oakland, CA, for example, is using $7 million in federal grants for its Domain Awareness Center to build a central database of surveillance information that will include information on the everyday activities of law-abiding residents. Law enforcement officials are able to investigate suspects much more thoroughly with improved abilities to gather and parse data from tools such as license plate readers, sound sensors, and traffic and port cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California says Oakland's program, which is scheduled to begin next summer, is "warrantless surveillance...[and] the city would be able to collect and stockpile comprehensive information about Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing." In Virginia, backlash over a license plate database forced state police to eliminate its data after the state’s attorney general said the practice violated state law. Law enforcement officials see big data as a way to greatly enhance their intelligence gathering and provide a much broader view of the people they are investigating. However, less-advanced surveillance programs previously have encountered significant resistance at the state and local level.
Quantum Computing Contender Helps Refine Google Glass
New Scientist (10/11/13) Jacob Aron
Google recently announced that it had purchased a quantum device and partnered with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration to launch the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab. Google researchers want to use quantum computing to analyze climate or genomics data and to determine whether there is intelligent life in the universe. "We believe quantum computing may help solve some of the most challenging computer science problems, particularly in machine learning," wrote Google's Hartmut Neven in a blog post. The first real-world application to come out of the lab may be improved algorithms for Google Glass. Although the headset itself cannot run quantum software, it is possible that a quantum computer could optimize an algorithm for use on the low-powered wearable device. Google researchers already have used the quantum technology to design a better blink-detection algorithm, which will enable users to "click" on links by blinking. However, some experts are questioning the technology's real-world applications. "While I don't know the details of this Google Glass demo, I'm skeptical that there's anything here that couldn't be done much faster and more easily using classical computers," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Scott Aaronson.
MIT's 'Kinect of the Future' Looks Through Walls With X-Ray-like Vision
IDG News Service (10/11/13) Nick Barber
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have demonstrated a device dubbed the "Kinect of the future" that can see through walls and pinpoint the movements of someone with an accuracy of plus or minus 10 centimeters. The system, which represents a person as a red dot on a computer screen, allows for three-dimensional tracking, and could be used for gaming as well as for determining when someone has fallen at home. "What we're doing here is localization through a wall without requiring you to hold any transmitter or receiver [and] simply by using reflections off a human body," says Fadel Adib, a Ph.D. student on the project from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "What is impressive is that our accuracy is higher than even state-of-the-art Wi-Fi localization." The system can only track one moving person at a time, and the area around it must be completely free of movement. The researchers used three radio antennas spaced about one meter apart and pointed at a wall, but they believe they can miniaturize the bulky hardware to make it closer to the size of a Kinect sensor.
IBM Launches Accelerated Discovery Lab
EE Times (10/10/13) R. Colin Johnson
IBM recently unveiled its Accelerated Discovery Lab (ADLab), which aims to augment the data-mining concept in practical application domains with smart analytics derived from its Watson question-and-answer technology combined with deep domain knowledge for each area being researched. "Instead of looking for answers that are already known--where it's just a matter of finding them--we are learning how to search for things that are not yet known," says IBM's Jeff Welser. IBM has assembled domain expertise in biology, medicine, finance, weather, mathematics, computer science, and information technology. The goal is to accelerate the pace of discovery in each of these areas by automating the process of uncovering new governing principles in each domain. "The significance of Moore's Law for big data is not so much that the amount of data is doubling every year, but rather in how one can discover which elements of that data are relevant, which can actually be utilized, and which will provide more context when trying to solve specific problems," Welser says. The ADLab researchers also are seeking to understand how different materials work so their algorithms can make recommendations as to which new combinations might be worth considering in the future.
Free Software Ties the Internet of Things Together
Technology Review (10/09/13) Rachel Metz
OpenRemote is an open source software platform that links Internet-connected gadgets, and is designed to make it easier to control smart home devices. OpenRemote offers a way to control and automate devices without worrying about the various integration protocols in different gadgets. Eventually, OpenRemote could be used to establish a common platform that manufacturers could use to make home-automation products simpler to set up and use, and allow devices from different makers to work together more smoothly. Users must download an OpenRemote controller and then use the Web-based OpenRemote Designer to set up the devices the controller should connect to and determine the look of the user interface. Then the user can access and control gadgets from a computer, smartphone, or tablet. OpenRemote features a community of individual users such as IT consultant Elier Ramirez, who has been using it for about two years. He discovered the software when browsing for home-automation remote control apps on his iPad, and he tried it after noting how much he could tailor it, including building his own remote app with interactive images of the rooms of his residence.
Duolingo 'Incubator' to Crowdsource New Language Courses
PCMag.com (10/09/13) Chloe Albanesius
Duolingo is turning to crowdsourcing as a low-cost way to expand the number of languages it supports. Duolingo's new Language Incubator will enable contributors to collaborate on providing new language content for the Duolingo language app. Available for iOS and Android, the app offers a free and comprehensive way to learn a new language. Duolingo currently offers lessons in English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian, but is seeking help especially for Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and Arabic, the most requested languages. "While language learning is notoriously expensive and therefore prohibitive, this new development will allow anyone to obtain a lifetime of language learning for free," Duolingo says. The company is accepting applications for contributors and moderators, who will need to write a portion of their application in a second language to demonstrate proficiency and translate it into English. Duolingo's algorithm will help ensure that community contributions are up to its standards. "There are many exciting aspects about this, including the possibility of helping preserve endangered languages across the globe," says Duolingo co-founder Luis von Ahn.
'Spaf' on Security
Dark Reading (10/10/13) Kelly Jackson Higgins
Purdue University professor Eugene Spafford, chair of ACM's U.S. Public Policy Council, says in an interview that not enough serious consideration is being given to computer security, noting that "we went from 20 pieces of malware in 1988 to [around] 180 million today." He laments that there have been several opportunities to learn valuable lessons and change the way business is done, that were not exploited. "By investing in and putting all the attention on firewalls, we were giving up on host security, basically," Spafford points out. He says a reliance on firewalls still exists today while the security situation has not improved, and is likely to be exacerbated by mobile and bring-your-own-device trends. Spafford also observes that whereas in 1988 a computer worm was a cause of considerable alarm and focus, today there exist hundreds of active worms that no one bothers to mention because they are stealthier. Spafford cites a regression in security in the last several decades, with the current concentration on patching being a step in the wrong direction. "If everything was in balance, we would have people who are trained across the areas and products they are looking at that are designed to be solid and secure," he says. "Any breaking of a system would be a largely futile exercise they would nonetheless indulge in as confirmation or assurance."
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