Welcome to the February 5, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Tech Companies Say Tens of Thousands of User Accounts Were Subject to National Security Spying
The Washington Post (02/03/14) Timothy B. Lee
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) submitted requests for private information on at least 59,000 user accounts of the nation's leading technology companies during the first six months of 2013. Yahoo led the way with at least 30,000 national security requests for content, followed by Microsoft with at least 15,000, Google with at least 9,000, Facebook with at least 5,000, and LinkedIn with fewer than 250, according to the companies. The NSA's requests were sometimes for non-content information, such as data about the times, senders, and recipients of emails. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft say they received less than 1,000 requests for non-content information in the first half of last year. The companies can only disclose the number of national security requests in ranges of 1,000, instead of the precise figure, and they must wait six months before reporting the numbers. A request for user data does not always mean it was granted, the companies note. Microsoft says it "successfully challenged requests in court, and we will continue to contest orders that we believe lack legal validity." The companies also say they will continue to push for more transparency and the right to disclose the specific number and types of requests.
Android App Warns When You're Being Watched
Technology Review (01/30/14) David Talbot
Rutgers University researchers created an app that puts a prominent banner across the top of other apps, notifying users when their location is being tracked. Android phone users who used a prototype of this app were shocked to discover how frequently they were being tracked, notes Rutgers professor Janne Lindqvist. Nearly 20 percent of smartphone owners surveyed have tried to disconnect location information from their apps, and 70 percent wanted to know more about the location data collected by their smartphone, according to a recent Pew Research survey. The researchers hope to pressure app developers into providing more prominent disclosures, collecting less personal information, and allowing users to select which data they will allow the app to see. The researchers gained information about other apps by utilizing a function within Android's location application programming interface that signals when any app requests location information. "Because we know how ubiquitous [National Security Agency] surveillance is, this is one tool to make people aware," Lindqvist says.
UH Researchers Create New Flexible, Transparent Conductor
University of Houston News (01/28/14) Jeannie Kever
University of Houston researchers have developed a new stretchable and transparent electrical conductor, a breakthrough that could result in a fully foldable cellphone or a flat-screen television. The researchers developed gold nanomesh electrodes that provide the necessary electrical conductivity as well as transparency and flexibility for foldable electronics. The electrodes increase resistance only slightly, even at a strain of 160 percent, or after 1,000 cycles at a strain of 50 percent, according to the researchers. "This is very useful to the field of foldable electronics," says University of Houston researcher Chuanfei Guo. "It is much more transportable." Although gold nanomesh is superior to other materials tested, even it broke and electrical resistance increased when it was stretched, says University of Houston researcher Zhifeng Ren. However, conductivity resumed when the material was returned to the original dimensions. Ren reports that the material has potential uses for biomedical devices.
Attempting to Code the Human Brain
The Wall Street Journal (02/03/14) Evelyn M. Rusli
Both startups and established technology firms increasingly are pursuing artificial intelligence that mimics the brain because of the tremendous potential of applications with human-like intelligence, but the technology is still in its early phases. Improved computing processors and advances in computer-learning methodologies are paving the way for artificial intelligence that could bring human intelligence to tasks such as identifying objects in photos, translating foreign languages, and guiding self-driving cars through intersections. For example, Vicarious, was founded with the goal of exploring the brain's sensory capabilities, especially vision's role in early human development. Vicarious' software began like an infant by learning to identify simple shapes such as text, and is now starting to grasp texture and lighting. In the future, the company aims to have the software learn to move within the physical world and understand cause-and-effect relationships. Known for claiming last October that its software could defeat CAPTCHAs 90 percent of the time, Vicarious is still refining perception issues in its software. Vicarious says it might need additional engineers and five to 10 years to refine its software. Meanwhile, Deepmind, a startup similar to Vicarious, last week was acquired by Google, which could use artificial intelligence to improve search results. Facebook also is interested in artificial intelligence to better understand users.
How Politics Divide Facebook Friendships
Georgia Tech News Center (01/29/14)
Georgia Institute of Technology researchers recently conducted a study suggesting that by displaying shared interests between friends during their more confrontational conversations, Facebook could help diffuse possible arguments and alleviate tension. The study also found that increasing exposure and engagement to weak ties could make people more resilient in the face of political disagreement. "People are mainly friends with those who share similar values and interests," says Georgia Tech researcher Catherine Grevet. "They tend to interact with them the most, a phenomenon called homophily." Facebook's algorithms do not help the situation by filling newsfeeds with the friends a person most often interacts with, typically those with strong ties. Grevet says Facebook could help solve this problem by adding in a few status updates on both sides of political issues. "Designing social media toward nudging users to strengthen relationships with weak ties with different viewpoints could have beneficial consequences for the platform, users and society," she says. The research will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, which takes place Feb. 15-19 in Baltimore.
U.S. Seeks Rule for Adding Tech to Cars to Prevent Accidents
IDG News Service (02/04/14) Stephen Lawson
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to mandate that all new cars have vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication systems, as tests have shown that consumers would accept the technology. The agency is currently analyzing the results of a year-long pilot program and plans to publish a report before seeking public comment and developing a proposal to make the technology mandatory. Cars with V2V systems wirelessly transmit safety information such as speed and location among themselves 10 times a second, according to DOT. The system can function over hundreds of yards between cars that are not visible to each other. The real-time data can be fed into onboard warning systems that tell drivers when a collision is imminent. DOT says the technology could prevent common types of accidents such as rear-end collisions, crashes in intersections, and cars hitting each other during lane changes. V2V systems also could help drivers safely make decisions such as whether to pass another vehicle on a two-lane road or make a left turn against oncoming traffic. DOT says the road tests involved nearly 3,000 cars and demonstrated that products from different car makers and parts companies can work together.
House Launches App Challenge to Inspire Science and Technology Careers
NextGov.com (02/03/14) Brittany Ballenstedt
High school students across the country have an opportunity to participate in the U.S. House of Representatives' new app development competition. House members established the House App Challenge in 2013, with the goal of getting more students interested in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Participants can work individually or in teams of up to four students to develop software for mobile, tablet, or computer devices. STEM education partners in local communities can serve as mentors and assist students. Participants must submit a demonstration video of their app along with the source code for inspection by the judges, who will examine the entries based on quality, creativity, implementation, and demonstrated excellence of coding and programming skills. The House will recognize winners in a congressional district awards ceremony and on the website for the House App Challenge. The winning app also will be displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
12 Predictions for the Future of Programming
InfoWorld (02/03/14) Peter Wayner
When No One Is Just a Face in the Crowd
The New York Times (02/01/14) Natasha Singer
As facial recognition technology advances, it offers several advantages to consumers but also raises complicated new privacy questions. Companies such as FaceFirst are offering software that enables retailers to load photos of known shoplifters and high spenders into a database to receive email, text, or SMS alerts containing photos and biographical information when a person of interest enters a store. The technology could allow stores, for example, to send immediate personalized offers to a customer's phone. Applications such as NameTag enable users to scan photographs of strangers to uncover information about them, including their occupations and social-network profiles. Privacy advocates caution that by instantly linking people in public to their online data, these tools will erase the ability to remain anonymous in public. Although data collection by mobile apps also raises privacy concerns, facial recognition technology is especially intrusive because it measures and records a person's biological patterns. As with genetic data, privacy concerns with facial recognition center on a person's right to control access to their own biometric data. Technology industry experts and consumer advocates will address the various issues surrounding facial recognition technology this Thursday in the first of a series of meetings organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is expected to lead to a voluntary industry code of conduct.
Hopkins Researchers Are Creating an Alternative to Bitcoin
Baltimore Sun (02/01/14) Carrie Wells
Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers are developing an untraceable currency called Zerocoin that would offer greater anonymity than existing digital currencies such as Bitcoin. Although critics argue that digital currencies enable money laundering and other crime, proponents say they allow the immediate, direct exchange of money without the need for a bank. Digital currencies should offer a level of privacy equal to that of traditional currency, says JHU professor Matthew Green, who is leading the Zerocoin effort. Bitcoin transactions are recorded in a public ledger to prevent duplication, but this practice also compromises anonymity because patterns in the ledger can be tracked with data-mining software to reveal user identities. Initially conceived as computer code that would add anonymity to Bitcoin transactions, Zerocoin is now being developed as a separate currency, with a complex formula that keeps transactions private. The U.S. government is still weighing how to handle digital currencies, and Zerocoin's creators warn that practical concerns exist. For example, because Zerocoin would exist virtually on a user's computer or hard drive, the currency would be irretrievable if stolen and the theft would be untraceable.
Studying Sea Snakes for Underwater Robot Design
University of Adelaide (02/03/14) Kate Bourne
A team of engineering, environmental science, and computer science researchers at the University of Adelaide plans to design a marine robot based on the body structure and swimming motion of sea snakes. With an undulating motion, a snake-like robot would be less invasive in the marine environment than a propeller-based machine, and a streamlined shape would enable it to move through complex habitats more easily, says Adelaide researcher Amy Watson. "Biomimetics or biology-inspired design is a rapidly growing field which uses the results of millions of years of trial-and-error experiments through natural evolution to produce a machine that's best-adapted for a particular environment," she says. "We want to capture and analyze the body shape and movement to generate information that will enable a more efficient design for underwater vehicles." Watson's team will investigate the biomechanics of the sea snake spine using high-resolution computed tomography scanning, and test movement with three-dimensional simulation models of vertebrae. The researchers will compare the range of motion between pairs of vertebrae located at different positions along the spine of a single snake and between snakes of different species.
What's Behind a #1 Ranking?
Harvard University (01/31/14) Manny Morone
Harvard University researchers have developed LineUp, an open source application that enables ordinary citizens to make quick, easy judgments about rankings based on multiple attributes. The researchers say LineUp is the first dynamic visualization program that enables users to assign weights to different parameters to create a custom ranking. LineUp is part of a larger software package called Caleydo, an open source visualization framework that visualizes genetic data and biological pathways. "LineUp really was developed to address our need to understand the ranking of genes by mutation frequency and other clinical parameters in a group of patients," says Harvard researcher Hanspeter Pfister. "It is an ideal tool to create and visualize complex combined scores of bioinformatics algorithms." LineUp introduces a dynamic element to the static analysis usually done on an Excel spreadsheet, enabling users to immediately consider or ignore columns in a dataset by dragging them into or out of the window. It also facilitates side-by-side comparisons of alternative weighting systems. "Essentially, it's a tool to allow people to explore the complexity of reality," says Harvard researcher Alexander Lex.
NYU Researchers Take Magnetic Waves for a Spin
NYU News (01/29/14) James Devitt
New York University (NYU) researchers have developed a method for creating and directing fast moving waves in magnetic fields that could boost communication and information processing in computer chips. The new method utilizes "spin waves," which are waves that move in magnetic materials, and can efficiently transfer energy and information from place to place. "Our results mark another vital step in harnessing a resource that is faster and more energy efficient than what we rely on today," says NYU professor Andrew Kent. The researchers developed "spin torque nano-oscillators," which are nanoscale devices that can convert a direct current into spin waves. The nano-oscillators can be arranged in arrays to direct the spin wave energy, similar to the way antennas are used to direct electromagnetic waves, according to the researchers. The researchers also developed a method that allows the spin waves to navigate in specific patterns and directions throughout a magnetic material. "Spin waves hold tremendous promise in improving the functionality of a range of technologies," Kent says.
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