Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the January 29, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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The National Guard Takes on Hackers (01/28/14) Melissa Maynard

Governors, legislators, and other organizations are increasingly pushing to use the National Guard to help address the issue of cybersecurity. In a recent State of the States speech, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper raised the issue, saying "as the nation develops resiliency to cyberattacks, the Guard should be mobilized to support federal and state efforts to protect networks and respond to incidents." The National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 16, 2013, includes provisions requiring the Defense Department to assess the cybersecurity capabilities of the Guard and consult with governors to help understand the states' cybersecurity needs and what role the Guard can play in meeting them. The Cyber Warrior Act, a bill introduced by eight U.S. senators last March, would have established "cybersecurity civil support teams" within the Guard that could be called up by governors as needed. Several states already have found roles for the Guard in bolstering their cybersecurity posture, beginning with Washington, which created Guard units centered around cybersecurity after realizing that many of its Guard members also worked for companies such as Google, Verizon, and Microsoft. Other states that have created cybersecurity-focused Guard units include Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, Utah, and Rhode Island.

Spy Agencies Tap Data Streaming From Phone Apps
The New York Times (01/27/14) James Glanz; Jeff Larson; Andrew W. Lehren

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) since 2007 have collaborated on gathering and storing user data from "leaky" smartphone apps, according to documents newly released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The two agencies have shared information about how to obtain location and planning data when targets use Google Maps, for example. In addition, address books, buddy lists, telephone logs, and geographic data embedded in photographs can be collected from posts to the mobile versions of services such as Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Meanwhile, player location, age, sex, and other personal information can be gleaned from popular games such as Angry Birds. Although the scale of the mobile data gathering is unclear, NSA and GCHQ routinely collect data from certain apps, especially early cellphone apps. Although President Barack Obama recently announced new privacy restrictions aimed at government surveillance, he did not address leaky apps and other smartphone functions. "NSA does not profile everyday Americans as it carries out its foreign intelligence mission," the NSA writes in defense of the program. "Because some data of U.S. persons may at times be incidentally collected in NSA's lawful foreign intelligence mission, privacy protections for U.S. persons exist across the entire process."

Coding as a Second Language? Kentucky Jockeys to Be Next to Join the Movement
Tech Republic (01/28/14) Lindsey Gilpin

A proposed bill to make computer science a foreign language option for high school students recently was passed by Kentucky's Senate Education committee. Kentucky is one of several states to move forward with this type of legislation amid a national campaign to make computer science more widely accessible to students. The movement has been spearheaded by, which wants to expand participation and education in computer science by making it available in more schools across the United States and to underrepresented students such as minorities and women. "Our main policy goal is to make computer science count as a math or science credit," says's Roxanne Emadi. Of 12 technical subjects, computer science was the only one to decrease in popularity from 1990 to 2009, according to a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics study. "By adding a computer programming option, an accredited math teacher can pick up that credential and help with the overflow of students that need language credits instead of searching for a foreign language teacher," says Kentucky state Senator David Givens. Emadi notes that advocates for computer science courses to count as a math or science credit, not as a replacement for foreign language courses, which she says are also important.

U.S. to Allow Companies to Disclose More Details on Government Requests for Data
Washington Post (01/27/14) Craig Timberg; Adam Goldman

U.S. officials say the Justice Department has agreed to ease its rules concerning the disclosure of certain types of data requests made to companies. The changes will allow companies to report on national security letters as well requests from the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but only in the form of broad numerical ranges. Although the decision is a victory for technology companies, which have fought to disclose more information about their obligations under government surveillance programs, the companies and privacy advocates say the changes still do not enable firms to provide detailed, reliable data on the extent of the government's access to private customer information for intelligence purposes. For example, companies will be able to report that the number of national security letters it received ranged from zero to 999, and they also can use similar ranges to disclose how many customer accounts are targeted. However, that information can only be reported once every six months. Previously, companies were prohibited from acknowledging that they received any requests. Privacy advocates say the changes do not go nearly far enough in disclosing the government's surveillance of emails, video chats, address books, Web browsing histories, and other online activities.

How a New Science of Cities Is Emerging From Mobile Phone Data Analysis
Technology Review (01/27/14)

Researchers at the Institute of Theoretical Physics (IPhT) in Paris have used mobile phone data to map the structure of cities and how people use them throughout the day. "These results point towards the possibility of a new, quantitative classification of cities using high-resolution spatio-temporal data," says IPhT's Thomas Louail. The research is part of a new science of cities that aims to objectively measure and understand the nature of large population centers. The researchers examined a database of mobile phone calls made in 31 Spanish cities with populations of more than 200,000. The data consists of the number of unique individuals using a given cell tower for each hour of the day over almost two months. Using the data, the researchers determined the density of individuals in each location and how it varies throughout the day. Their approach enabled them to search for "hotspots" in the cities where the density of individuals passes some specific threshold at certain times of the day. The results show that people tend to gravitate toward central points in each city at a certain time of day, before retreating away from the city center. The results also indicate the number of hotspots increases with city size.

Old-School Wi-Fi Is Slowing Down Networks
IDG News Service (01/27/14) Stephen Lawson

Researchers at Cisco Systems say the standards developed for the first Wi-Fi systems are now holding back newer and faster protocols. The IEEE 802.11 standard still requires devices and access points to be compatible with technologies that date to the late 1990s, but those older standards are not as efficient as most Wi-Fi devices sold today. The researchers say the 802.11 Working Group and the Wi-Fi Alliance should find a way to let some wireless gear leave those versions behind. Cisco researchers propose making the best use of the 2.4 GHz band, the smaller of two unlicensed frequency blocks where Wi-Fi operates. The slower wireless data traffic is, the longer it occupies the channel it is using, which means that older forms of Wi-Fi hold onto channels a lot longer than the new ones do. "The reason it doesn't work is actually [that] a very large proportion, half the traffic sometimes, can be these 1 Mbps packets," says Cisco's Brian Hart. The Cisco researchers propose changes that would allow for two certification tracks at the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the first track would keep the slower speeds while the other would gradually discourage the use of the older modes.

Crowdsourced RNA Designs Outperform Computer Algorithms, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford Researchers Report
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (01/27/14) Byron Spice

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Stanford University recently conducted a crowdsourcing experiment to determine how a group of non-experts would design RNA molecules. The researchers found that a group of the general public, when using an online interface and feedback from lab experiments, was able to produce designs for RNA molecules that are consistently more successful than those generated by the best computerized design algorithms. The researchers began the experiment by gathering some of the best design rules and practices generated by players of the online EteRNA design challenge. They then used machine-learning principles to generate their own automated design algorithm, EteRNABot, which also bested prior design algorithms. "The quality of the designs produced by the online EteRNA community is just amazing and far beyond what any of us anticipated when we began this project three years ago," says CMU professor Adrien Treiulle. The designs produced by people had a 99-percent likelihood of being superior to those of the prior computer algorithms, while EteRNABot-produced designs had a 95-percent likelihood of besting the prior algorithms, says CMU's Jeehyung Lee. In the future, the researchers plan to expand their design regimen to include three-dimensional designs.

The Holodeck Begins to Take Shape
The New York Times (01/26/14) Nick Bilton

Holodecks similar to the simulated-reality rooms seen on "Star Trek" could be available by 2024, according to some scientists and researchers. Computer companies, Hollywood, and video-game makers want to move entertainment closer to reality by enabling users to see things and allow people to move around their living rooms and become part of the story. The technology could enable gamers to step inside a computer-simulated Yankee Stadium, for example, and pick up a computer-simulated bat and hear the roar of a computer-simulated crowd. Advanced Micro Devices has built a version of a holodeck that is shaped like a dome, covered with wall-to-wall projectors, and uses surround sound, augmented reality, and other technologies to recreate the real world. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory has created a floor, called an omnidirectional treadmill, that enables users to seemingly wander while it moves but they stay in place. Meanwhile, Microsoft has built the IllumiRoom and Lightspace, while the University of Illinois at Chicago has created CAVE2. Gaming appears to be the driving technology that could disrupt the TV market and business travel, and cause users to prefer life in a virtual world. "Our desire for more realistically spattered blood seems to be our saving grace in terms of keeping Moore's Law going," says futurist Brad Templeton.

How Can Supercomputers Survive a Drought?
HPC Wire (01/26/14) Shaolei Ren

Supercomputers consume a huge amount of water to cool down servers through towers that are typically located on the roof of supercomputer facilities. For example, a 15 MW data center could use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day, according to Amazon's James Hamilton. However, due to recent drought conditions around the United States, there have been concerns over the tremendous amount of water required to run data centers and supercomputers. Facebook and eBay have developed dashboards to monitor the water efficiency in run-time, while Google and the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center are developing water-efficient cooling technologies, such as using outside air cooling and recycled water. However, Florida International University (FIU) professor Shaolei Ren notes that these approaches only aim for facility or infrastructure improvement, and they require high upfront capital investment and/or the right climate conditions. Ren says FIU researchers are working on software-based approaches to mitigate water consumption. The researchers found that the spatio-temporal variation of water efficiency also is a perfect fit for supercomputers' workload flexibility. During a demonstration of their approach, the researchers reduced water consumption by 20 percent with almost no compromise in aspects such as service latency.

U.S. Computer Scientists Reject Mass Surveillance
Popular Science (01/24/14) Kelsey D. Atherton

Fifty influential American computer scientists have signed an open letter urging the United States to reject mass surveillance and preserve privacy. "Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals, but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life," the letter says. Targeted surveillance, which includes intercepting computers before they are delivered and installing hardware that then spies on the user, has strong legal precedence, and fits a regular definition of surveillance. However, bulk collection rests on a legal case decided in the late 1970s. The letter says bulk collection combines the innocent with the guilty, storing the information indefinitely and threatening privacy. The letter's signatories recommend having the government create sensible limitations on its authority to collect users' data, and that intelligence agencies work under a clear legal framework subject to strong checks and balances. The group also recommends that governments be transparent about the number and nature of their demands for user information, that transfer of data across borders not be impeded, and that there should be a transparent and robust framework to govern the sharing of information between governments.

Japanese Organizations Claim White Spaces Broadband Breakthrough
Telecompetitor (01/23/14) Joan Engebretson

Researchers at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) and Hitachi Kokusai Electric say they have used the IEEE 802.22 standard for TV white spaces to achieve a "historic breakthrough" in long-range broadband communications. Using an 802.22 base station and equipment conforming to the 802.11af standard, NICT and Hitachi Kokusai reached data rates of 5.2 Mbps downstream and 4.5 Mbps upstream over a distance of 12.7 kilometers. Although developers initially predicted 802.22 data rates of up to 22 Mbps per TV channel over distances up to 100 kilometers, the chair of the committee that developed the standard recently said a more realistic typical range estimate is roughly 10 kilometers. NICT and Hitachi Kokusai also have created an enhancement to the 802.22 standard that uses two discontinuous TV channels to support throughput of 15.5 Mbps downstream and 9 Mbps upstream over a distance of 6.3 km. For the trial, the researchers used 802.22 in a multi-hop configuration to create the backbone network. They tested video-calling and road-monitoring applications that could be useful in areas without landline broadband. "These achievements show feasibility of broadband services in rural areas and supporting communications in case of disasters," the researchers say.

Knight Announces 24 Prototype Fund Winners Focused on Human-Centered Design
PBS (01/22/14) Desiree Everts

The Knight Foundation is supporting 24 early-stage media projects through its Prototype Fund, which provides small projects with grants of $35,000. The competition, which offers an opportunity for the foundation to support efforts to accelerate innovation in journalism, focused on human-centered design, and many of the projects also involved health data. For example, Keepr built an open source data-mining tool that enables journalists to track breaking news stories and easily find quality news sources, while !nstant designed a mobile app for verifying and providing context to breaking news on social media. Vizzuality developed an open source tool that can quickly turn content into interactive stories for online publication, and Zago built a mobile app that provides secure data-sharing between a reporter and the newsroom. Meanwhile, Global Sensor Web helps scientists and citizens collaborate and better monitor their environment through an online platform for aggregating geo-tagged data sets from public data sources and the onboard sensors of mobile phones, and Smart Chicago Collaborative is using Twitter to identify potential cases of food poisoning in Chicago and encouraging individuals to report incidents of food poisoning. Other winners include a system for reporting noise pollution from the University of Missouri, and a kid-friendly system for measuring air quality from Habitat Map.

Some Consider MSR India Mecca of Theoretical Computer Science: Jeannette Wing
Business Standard (01/24/14) Itika Sharma Punit

In an interview, Microsoft Research's Jeannette M. Wing discusses innovation in India, women in software research, and this year's research trends. India's talented workforce helped draw Microsoft Research to the country, says Wing, noting that India has a top theoretical computer science school that stands out worldwide. Developing countries such as India benefit from research and development investment because it boosts the economy, impacts society, and invests in talent. India is focusing on engineering education, which will create a generation of computer scientists who will innovate in business and academia, and train the following generation. The shortage of women in technology fields is a global problem with no simple solution, Wing says. In the United States, "mathematics and science are usually not the subjects that teachers encourage their female students to pursue," she notes. This discourages many women from pursuing technology careers before they even reach college, and those who do study technology in college often feel out of place. However, Wing says the technology industry is working to encourage more women to participate. "We have some prominent senior women executives now, and they certainly speak well about how one can be a female technical leader," she says. Top research trends in 2014 include using big data to solve problems in new ways, analytics, and natural user interfaces.

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