Welcome to the November 27, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
UN Panel Passes Draft Resolution on Privacy Threats in the Digital Age
IDG News Service (11/27/13) John Ribeiro
A United Nations panel on Tuesday adopted a draft resolution on potential threats to human rights, including the right to privacy in the digital age. The draft resolution calls for U.N. General Assembly members "to review their procedures, practices, and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, interception, and collection, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all their obligations under international human rights law." The resolution, which was approved without a vote and is primarily symbolic, was co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany, whose leaders were both allegedly spied on by the U.S. National Security Agency. The draft resolution will go to the General Assembly in December, and includes certain modifications due to pressure from the United States and some other countries, according to reports. For example, the draft resolution includes a modified version of the original proposal's reference to concerns about potential "human rights violations and abuses" that could result from "massive surveillance, interception, and data collection."
Study Tracks Attrition Rates for STEM Majors
Inside Higher Ed (11/27/13) Megan Rogers
About 50 percent of bachelor's degree candidates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) exit the field without completing a college degree, according to a report from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. Using data tracking students enrolling in a bachelor's or associate degree program in the 2003-2004 academic year through 2009, the study found that approximately 28 percent of bachelor's degree candidates and 20 percent of associate degree candidates had declared a STEM major. Of those who had entered a STEM program, 48 percent of bachelor's degree candidates had departed the STEM field by spring 2009. Meanwhile, 69 percent of associate degree candidates had left the STEM field during the course of the study. An identical attrition rate for STEM entrants who had entered post-secondary education in the 2003-2004 academic year was uncovered by an October 2012 report. The highest attrition rate was for bachelor's degree candidates declaring a major in computer/information sciences, and for associate degree candidates who declared a math major. The study also found that more men than women exited the STEM fields by dropping out while more women than men left STEM disciplines by switching majors. In addition, the STEM attrition rate was roughly equal to the rate at which students in non-STEM fields switched majors or dropped out.
Inexpensive 'Nano-Camera' Can Operate at the Speed of Light
MIT News (11/26/13) Helen Knight
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab and the University of Waikato have created a $500 "nano-camera" that operates at the speed of light and could have applications in areas such as medical imaging and vehicle collision avoidance detectors. The camera is based on "time of flight" technology that calculates the location of objects by how long it takes a light signal to reflect off a surface and return to the sensor. However, unlike existing devices based on time of flight, MIT graduate student Achuta Kadambi says the camera is not disrupted by rain, fog, or translucent objects. The camera uses an encoding technique often used in the telecommunications industry to determine the distance a signal has traveled, says the Media Lab's Ramesh Raskar. "We use a new method that allows us to encode information in time," Raskar says. "So when the data comes back, we can do calculations that are very common in the telecommunications world, to estimate different distances from the single signal." The device scans the scene with a continuous-wave signal that oscillates at nanosecond periods, enabling the use of inexpensive, off-the-shelf light-emitting diodes while attaining a time resolution within one order of magnitude of femtophotography. The researchers presented the camera last week at Siggraph Asia in Hong Kong.
Microsoft, Suspecting NSA Spying, to Ramp Up Efforts to Encrypt Its Internet Traffic
The Washington Post (11/26/13) Craig Timberg; Barton Gellman; Ashkan Soltani
Microsoft is seeking to better encrypt its Internet traffic because it believes the U.S. National Security Agency may have intercepted its global communications links, according to people familiar with the firm's plans. Sources say Microsoft's apprehension about the NSA increased considerably in the wake of reports that the agency accessed traffic inside Google's and Yahoo's private networks. Although Microsoft officials say they have no independent verification that the NSA was targeting its Internet services, sources say leading Microsoft executives will meet this week to determine what encryption tools to implement and when. Other private companies also are strengthening their defenses against U.S. government surveillance programs. "That's a pretty big change in the way these companies have operated, and it's a big engineering effort," says Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green. One U.S. official on Tuesday said anonymously that the data collection can occur at various points and not necessarily on a company's private fiber-optic links. Experts say the tech industry's implementation of new encryption technology represents its growing concern about NSA's cyber-tactics and could significantly complicate the agency's surveillance efforts for years.
Software Mines Science Papers to Make New Discoveries
Technology Review (11/25/13) Tom Simonite
Researchers from IBM and the Baylor College of Medicine have developed software that mines thousands of research papers to forecast new discoveries about a protein that is critical to cancer and could result in more rapid drug development. The software mined more than 60,000 research papers on p53, a protein involved in the cell growth linked to most cancers. The software analyzed sentences in the papers to develop an understanding of enzymes called kinases that influence p53, which are often the targets of cancer treatments, and created a list of other proteins mentioned that were likely to be undiscovered kinases. The researchers have tested 10 of these predictions, and seven have thus far been proven accurate as undiscovered kinases, says Baylor's Olivier Lichtarge. "Kinases are typically discovered at a rate of one per year," says Lichtarge. "The rate of discovery can be vastly accelerated." In addition, the software appears able to pinpoint previously unidentified phosphatases, which are enzymes that reverse the action of kinases, as well as other types of protein that may interact with p53. Human specialists cannot parse the tremendous volume of research literature that now exists, but software is capable of doing so, says University of Colorado at Denver Center for Computational Pharmacology director Lawrence Hunter.
Text Messages Tell Drivers When There's a Jam Ahead
New Scientist (11/25/13) Clint Witchalls
Drivers in Nairobi, Kenya, should have an easier time navigating traffic thanks to a new text message service from IBM Research Africa. Called Twende Twende, or "Let's go, Let's go" in Swahili, the service is designed to provide a message on traffic conditions or route alternatives when a motorist sends a message on their location and destination. The service uses data from Nairobi's network of traffic cameras, coupled with an image-enhancing algorithm, to identify individual vehicles and their velocity. IBM Research Africa's Uyi Stewart says the lab used an inference algorithm from IBM's Tokyo research lab and worked to fine-tune it for the Kenyan capital. The adapted algorithm extrapolates traffic conditions on the 98 percent of streets not covered by cameras. "If we have two isolated parallel streets with a single connecting street, and we know the ingress and egress numbers for cars on each of the parallel streets, we can estimate how many cars are taking a street connecting them," Stewart notes. Recommendations will improve over time as more drivers use the service. "The more they use it, the more the system learns, the better it gets," Stewart says.
NSA Reportedly Compromised More Than 50,000 Networks Worldwide
IDG News Service (11/25/13) Lucian Constantin
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly breached more than 50,000 computer networks worldwide and penetrated the fiber-optic cables that carry Internet traffic among continents. To carry out its Computer Network Exploitation (CNE), NSA reportedly installed "implants" on more than 50,000 devices, according to a report from Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that it said stemmed from information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. CNE "includes enabling actions and intelligence collection via computer networks that exploit data gathered from target or enemy information systems or networks," according to the NSA. CNE implants compromise routers, switches, and firewalls to monitor entire networks, according to an earlier Washington Post report. Furthermore, the new leaks suggest that NSA has access to large Internet cables at 20 different locations, operates more than 80 regional Special Collection Service installations in conjunction with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, maintains ties to 30 third-party countries outside of the Five Eyes partnership, and has access to 52 regional facilities that intercept foreign satellite communications.
Something About STEM Drives Women Out
Cornell Chronicle (11/20/13) Bill Steele
Women who have worked in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are more likely to leave their field for other careers than other professional women, particularly in their early careers, according to research at Cornell University and the University of Texas at Austin. Among women in both STEM and non-STEM fields, few leave the labor force entirely. "A lot of people still think it's having children that leads to STEM women's exits," says Cornell professor Sharon Sassler. "It's not the family. Women leave before they have children or even get married. Our findings suggest that there is something unique about the STEM climate that results in women leaving." The researchers studied the career paths of 258 women in STEM careers and 842 women in professional and managerial positions, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, which tracked people aged 14 to 22 in 1979 through midlife. Despite higher pay and better working conditions, 50 percent of women who originally worked in STEM fields had moved to other occupations after about the first 12 years, compared with about 20 percent of other professional women who switched fields over the survey's entire three-decade span.
SC13: GPUs Would Make Terrific Network Monitors
IDG News Service (11/21/13) Joab Jackson
Graphics processing units (GPUs) could potentially be used to capture data about network traffic in real time. According to Wenji Wu, a network researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, GPU-based network monitors could be uniquely qualified to keep up with traffic flowing through networks running at 10 Gbps or more. The task of monitoring networks requires reading all the data packets as they cross the network, which "requires a lot of data parallelism," Wu says. He notes that GPUs "have a great parallel execution model," and points out that they offer high memory bandwidth, easy programmability, and can split the packet capture process across multiple cores. Wu built a prototype using a NVIDIA M2070 GPU and an off-the-shelf network interface card to capture network traffic. Wu says that compared to a single-core central processing unit-based network monitor, the GPU-based system accelerated packet processing and increased performance by as much as 17 times. The improvement was threefold compared to a six-core CPU.
Geospatial Data Project Will Let Almost Anyone Put Almost Anything on Map
Purdue University News (11/20/13) Greg Kline
Purdue University researchers want to develop a powerful Web-based system that enables people around the world to better predict natural disasters. The project will add geospatial data hosting, processing, and sharing capabilities to Purdue's HUBzero, a platform for building future-rich websites enabling research and education. The researchers say that if the project is successful, it could lead to the easy development of a variety of Web-enabled tools for probing and presenting geospatial data in ways that can help address pressing issues around the world. "We want to have tools where people can integrate multiple data sets in the way they want and extract information based on these multiple data sets," says Purdue professor Venkatesh Merwade. The project should open geospatial data and sophisticated analysis tools to almost anyone, and enable ready sharing of data and results, as well as collaboration among users. "In this project, we will be able to share what we have learned, expand on it, and make it available to anyone through the HUBzero open source software," says Purdue's Carol Song. The new features will be incorporated into the freely available open source version of HUBzero, making them available to current hub owners or those who want to build a hub.
Understanding Information: How We Get It, How We Use It, How to Benefit From It
UCSD News (CA) (11/20/13) Tiffany Fox
University of California, San Diego professor Tara Javidi considers how people acquire and use information in various engineering applications to be as important as the use of information for a context-specific purpose. Javidi shares a $1-million U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) collaborative research grant to co-develop a new theoretical architecture for understanding how to best direct information flow in large cyber-physical systems. This marks the fourth NSF grant Javidi has received in the past 18 months to address issues of information acquisition in the contexts of cognitive networking, enhanced spectrum access, computer vision, and social networking. All four projects aim to integrate tools from control theory, information theory, and statistics to jointly optimize data collection, analysis, and processing. "The problem of information collection cannot be ignored or taken for granted without introducing inherent loss of performance," Javidi contends. She and her collaborators in the new NSF project are attempting to anticipate which sensing and data collection resources are best employed, where, and when. Javidi says the proposed project's primary problem sets include that of network scale and decentralized control, and the tradeoff between cost, accuracy, and dimension of data when acquiring information.
Rise of the Robot Artist
Pacific Standard (11/13) Chris V. Nicholson
Artificial intelligence (AI) over the past 40 years has focused on problem-solving, but the field is now turning to challenges involving creativity. Innovation is defined by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office as a novel, useful, and non-obvious extension of existing ideas, and psychologists offer similar definitions of creativity. Several software programs are emerging that are able to generate works that meet this definition. For example, British AI researcher Simon Colton developed "emotionally aware" software called the Painting Fool, which scans news articles to ascertain a mood from world news and reflects that mood in portraits of designated subjects. In addition, Brigham Young University researchers have created the Pseudo-Intelligent Evolutionary Real-time Recipe Engine (PIERRE), a virtual chef that displays creativity by searching the Internet for highly rated recipes and recombining ingredients in unique ways. PIERRE uses a recombinatory method called an evolutionary computation, which is based on logic and vocabulary from the genetics field. In genetic recombination, specific alleles remain together, just as in PIERRE's evolutionary computation in which certain food elements remain together. Meanwhile, composer and programmer David Cope has developed software that composes new music in the style of canonical composers, with results that most human judges could not distinguish from music composed by people.
Interview: Peter Denning
Infosecurity (USA) (11/21/13) Drew Amorosi
Computer scientist and former Association for Computing Machinery president Peter Denning details in an interview how fundamental security principles compiled by computing innovators were lost with the advent of the PC era. Denning notes that the interconnectivity of the modern environment was missing in the formative years of computing, and he points out that connectivity "just expands the problem" of data protection. Denning maintains that security and protection were recognized from the very beginning as critical issues. He observes that by the time the PC revolution began, operating systems were quite large, and he cites an animosity against them by aspiring PC system pioneers "because they thought that it resulted in corporations blocking the small guy out of using computers." Denning says these pioneers therefore lacked historical knowledge of the security issues that an older generation of mainframe technologists dealt with, which effectively delayed addressing such issues for decades. Still, Denning notes that these basic issues are being revisited, by the process of "resurrecting old knowledge and adapting it to the new world." Denning also points to the fact that it is security of the overall network, rather than the operating system, that now commands attention. "These issues transcend individual operating systems," he says.
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