Welcome to the November 13, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Program Seeks to Nurture 'Data Science Culture' at Universities
New York Times (11/12/13) Steve Lohr
Academia at New York University (NYU), the University of Washington, and the University of California, Berkeley are collaborating on the Sloan Foundation's five-year Digital Information Technology program. "What this partnership is trying to do is change the culture of universities to create a data science culture," says program director Joshua Greenberg. NYU professor Yann LeCun says the three-university collaboration aims to create a new data science environment. At each university, 12 to 15 professors will be the core participants representing the life, environmental, physical, and social sciences. Each campus also will have a data science studio staffed by data scientists and software professionals, where researchers from different disciplines will share ideas and techniques. The partnership is designed to be a demonstration project that other universities can emulate. Data and data science should become common ground and share a common language across disciplines, says University of Washington professor Edward Lazowska. Part of that common ground is to create software tools for data handling and analysis that can be widely shared. The professors say pursuing that goal will require creating new, long-term career paths for the data scientists that develop such tools.
Social Media Helps Aid Efforts After Typhoon Haiyan
New Scientist (11/12/13) Debora MacKenzie
In the wake of typhoon Haiyan, disaster relief teams are descending on the Philippines from all over the world, trying to get aid to the victims. As part of the relief efforts, social media is being mined by volunteers to provide aid workers with real-time maps of where the most help is needed. "A decade ago, disaster relief workers got a few emails a day over sporadic satellite phones," says the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's John Crowley. "Now the flood of messages reaches one per second, 24/7." The boost in communications is the result of new emergency telecommunications infrastructure, such as the inflatable broadband antennas being deployed in the Philippines. Meanwhile, MicroMapper's global network of volunteers is helping to sift through the data. MicroMapper provides real-time maps of where people are asking for help and where destruction is the greatest. The maps are created by volunteers who sift through social media coming out of disaster zones. Volunteers also help to keep maps up to date by using OpenStreetMap, which enables expatriates and people living in the vicinity to work in a Wikipedia-style collaboration. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is leading an effort to develop the Humanitarian Exchange Language, open software that would enable relief groups to exchange data.
Tech Firms Furious After Denied Full View of Government Reply to FISA Court
IDG News Service (11/13/13) John Ribeiro
Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn said in a Tuesday court filing that the U.S. government has offered them only a "heavily redacted version" of its response to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with regards to the companies' request for permission to release information on government data requests. The government submitted a response and a supporting declaration, denying all requests for greater transparency. Hoping to restore user confidence that they are not sharing mass data with the government, the technology firms asked the court for permission to publish aggregate data about orders or directives received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) or the FISA Amendment Act. The Department of Justice objected to the request in a Sept. 30 filing, saying the information could "cause serious harm to the national security interests of the United States." The companies say they have repeatedly asked the government for an unredacted version and suggested workarounds such as permitting a review either by counsels with top-secret clearances or under non-disclosure agreements. The companies have asked the court to remove the redactions unless the government grants access to their lawyers.
Delving Into Digital Learning
Inside Higher Ed (11/12/13) Carl Straumsheim
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) on Monday announced its Simon Initiative, which will publicly launch the world’s largest student learning database to determine best practices and standards for the use of technology in the classroom. The university is forming a council of higher education leaders, education technology experts, and industry representatives to guide the initiative. The effort will build on the work of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center and its research partners, as well as the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, says CMU president Subra Suresh. The Simon Initiative has four main goals, which are to share rich data worldwide, assist teachers with teaching, speed innovation through startup companies, and improve residential students' educational experience. "Now is the right time to bring all this together in a new and unique way, and also tie it to developments all around the world," Suresh says. The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center has gathered more than 500,000 hours of student data and studies on technology-enhanced courses, and wants to enable global researchers to contribute their own data and help create a common format that will improve data usability for scholars in all disciplines. "Advances in learning science and technology offer transformative potential in education and training nationwide," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Smartphone PIN Revealed by Camera and Microphone
BBC News (11/11/13)
University of Cambridge researchers have found that the microphone and camera of a smartphone can reveal the PIN for the mobile device. The researchers say they have identified codes entered on a number-only soft keypad using a program called PIN Skimmer. The software uses the microphone to listen for clicks as a user enters their PIN, and uses the camera to watch their face. According to professors Ross Anderson and Laurent Simon, the software estimates the orientation of the phone and "correlates it to the position of the digit tapped by the user." Anderson says "we watch how your face appears to move as you jiggle your phone by typing. It did surprise us how well it worked." In a test using the Google Nexus-S and the Galaxy S3 smartphones, the software was able to work out four-digit PINs more than 50 percent of the time after five attempts. The program had a 60 percent success rate for eight-digit PINs after 10 attempts. "We demonstrated that the camera, usually used for conferencing or face recognition, can be used maliciously," the researchers say.
Ads Could Soon Know If You're an Introvert (on Twitter)
Technology Review (11/08/13) Tom Simonite
IBM researchers are testing technology that guesses people's core psychological traits by analyzing what they post on Twitter, with the goal of offering personalized customer service or better-targeted promotional messages. The researchers have developed software that creates a personality profile based on a person's most recent few hundred or thousand Twitter updates. They are working with several IBM customers to test how the technology might help their businesses. The pilot program will test whether messages targeted with the technology's help perform better than others. "Our hypothesis is that the conversion rates will be quite high," says IBM researcher Michelle Zhou. Having a general idea of a person's personality could help in call centers or other customer service settings, such as when an airline must report that a flight has been cancelled or delayed. The software was developed by recruiting people to answer psychological questionnaires and comparing the results with their Twitter activity. In a study in which 300 people had their Twitter profiles processed by the software and also took psychometric surveys, the results were "highly correlated" more than 80 percent of the time, Zhou says. However, she notes that when Twitter is used for specialized purposes it can distort results.
Internet Security: Besieged
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) recently met to discuss concerns about recent reports of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) undermining cryptographic software and standards. The computer security research community had long-standing suspicions about the government using the Internet to spy on whole populations, and several IETF members helped create the technologies that have been exploited. At the meeting, some IETF members focused on how to thwart surveillance, while others emphasized the need to restore confidence in online security. Security experts cautioned against the use of tools that could have been compromised, with RSA Security warning customers not to use a random-number generator and Brazilian mathematicians releasing new codes for the elliptic-curve cryptography technique touted by NSA. Google has introduced a program to encrypt traffic between its data centers, and Yahoo announced similar plans. Although some companies are pushing Congress to limit NSA's power, technological fixes offer the advantage of speed and universal protection from eavesdropping governments, including those outside the United States. Fixing the situation technologically might not be that difficult, because the NSA in leaked slides describes some programs as "fragile," which indicates they can possibly be easily deterred, says Johns Hopkins University's Matthew Green.
How Code.org Is Extending Computer Science Beyond 'the Lucky Few'
VentureBeat (11/09/13) Ali Partovi; Hadi Partovi
Teaching children basic computer science is valuable no matter what career path they might choose, and every child can benefit from a strong foundation in problem solving, write Code.org co-founders Hadi and Ali Partovi. They say it is time for computer science to be accepted as a new pillar of American education, and note that state-defined education standards are one reason why the United States is lagging behind other countries in terms of computer science proficiency. In 37 states, computer science does not count toward math or science graduation requirements, leading to low enrollment and cut programs. Classroom trials have shown that young children can grasp elementary computer science before they learn how to read and write. This December, in celebration of Computer Science Education Week (Dec. 9-15), Code.org will call on students, teachers, and parents to try an Hour of Code. The organization is asking teachers to take one hour out of their week to teach computer science, in a campaign to show that regardless of age, race, or gender, anyone can learn the basics of computer programming. The Hour of Code is on track to be the largest online education event in history, as more than 1.5 million students have already registered across 140 countries. For more information on this event and other plans for Computer Science Education Week, of which ACM is a founding partner, visit http://csedweek.org/
It’s Official: Computer Scientists Pick Stronger Passwords
Ars Technica (11/08/13) Dan Goodin
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers examined the passwords that 25,000 faculty, staff, and students used to access grades, email, financial transcripts, and other sensitive data, and then analyzed how guessable the passwords would be during an offline attack. The researchers subjected the passwords to a cracking algorithm with a complex password policy, and found differences in the quality of the passwords chosen by various subgroups within the university population. For example, those associated with CMU's computer science and technology schools chose passwords that were more than 1.8 times stronger than those used by people in the business school. "This kind of experiment can't tell us anything about why this effect is going on, just that it is," says CMU's Michelle L. Mazurek. The researchers also found that with the addition of each lowercase letter or digit, a password is 70 percent as likely to be guessed. Adding special symbols or uppercase letters strengthened passwords even more, lowering the likelihood of guessing to 56 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Men in the study also used slightly stronger passwords than women, while people who choose stronger passwords have higher rates of failed login attempts. The researchers presented their study at the recent ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Berlin.
Google Wants Tattoo to Act as Smartphone Microphone
Computerworld (11/11/13) Matt Hamblen
Google is developing an electronic skin tattoo for the throat that can act as a microphone for a smartphone, tablet, or other device. The tattoo would communicate over near-field communication, Bluetooth, Infrared, or another short-range wireless technology to a nearby mobile device. The tattoo could include an embedded microphone in addition to a transceiver for enabling wireless communications with a nearby smartphone. The tattoo also could have a power supply to receive energy from another place on the user's body. In addition, Google says the system could help reduce street noise and other nearby sounds that often enter microphones and distort communications. The skin tattoo could even include a galvanic skin response detector to act as a lie detector. "It is contemplated that a user that may be nervous or engaging in speaking falsehoods may exhibit different galvanic skin response than a more confident, truth-telling individual," according to a patent application for the device. The application also suggests the wearable device could be used as a user interface to a display, in which specific throat movements cause the display to light up.
Locking Down the Cloud
University of Paderborn researchers have developed a software re-encryption system that gives cloud users privacy and enables software providers to lock out malicious users. The privacy-friendly architecture for future cloud computing systems would require software licensing and software payment, according to researchers Ronald Petrlic, Stephan Sekula, and Christoph Sorge. Users would authorize a service provider--the cloud host--to purchase a certain piece of software from a software provider. However, the service provider would not know what software has been purchased. The software provider would send an encrypted version of the application together with the corresponding license to the cloud host. Each time the user wants to use the software on their cloud host, the program execution would be anonymously initialized at a computing center of their choosing. The cloud host would be remunerated for the hosting services and the encryption facilities they provide, and the software company would get its licensing fee. Meanwhile, users get to use the software they paid for in the cloud without the cloud host being able to identify them or even knowing what software is being employed. "Privacy protection will become more important in the cloud computing scenarios of the future," the researchers say. "Proper payment concepts are crucial for software providers to take part in future cloud computing."
Hunting the Spark of Creativity
National Science Foundation (11/04/13) Bobbie Mixon
The University of Cincinnati is leading a team of researchers from four universities that is developing computer-based tools to mine the Internet and communities of social media for creative insights. The researchers say they first must clearly define the highly personal subject of creativity by types, kinds, and categories to successfully identify it online. They also must find a way to organize large amounts of unstructured, creative data. To do that, the researchers are examining creativity in neural networks in the human brain. The work is being supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation's INSPIRE project, which funds potentially transformative research that does not fit into any one scientific field, but crosses disciplinary boundaries. "Being able to extract ideas from social networks is very much the ultimate goal of our research, but a major issue is which real-world networks we can access for this purpose," says University of Cincinnati professor Ali Minai. He says the projects will eventually help open vast possibilities for shared creativity and innovation among the millions that use social media. "We would like people to see this research as an attempt to look at something that is the very essence of being human--creativity--but which is very difficult to study quantitatively," Minai says. "They should also understand that we approach this task with equal measures of excitement and humility."
IEEE Wants the Cloud to Grow Like the Internet
Government Computer News (11/06/13) Rutrell Yasin
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is developing an Intercloud Testbed to show how various types of cloud computing environments can combine and exchange data. IEEE announced the project in October, and its founding organizations said they intend to achieve cloud-to-cloud interoperability and federation capabilities, which also will facilitate the development of IEEE's upcoming P2302 standard for cloud-to-cloud interworking. The IEEE Intercloud Testbed's international founding members comprise 21 cloud and network service providers, cloud-enabling companies, and academic and industry research institutions that have volunteered to provide their own cloud implementations and expertise to the shared testbed. A network-to-network interface architecture serves as the basis for the testbed as well as the IEEE cloud interoperability standard, and IEEE notes it is similar to the approach used to create the Internet. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's John Messina predicts that within five years, a set of global interoperability standards will enable the formation of an "intercloud" allowing firm integration between multiple clouds.
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