Welcome to the May 2, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Call for Limits on Web Data of Customers
The New York Times (05/02/14) David E. Sanger; Steve Lohr
A long-awaited White House report chiefly authored by presidential adviser John D. Podesta recommends government limits on how private companies can use the data they collect from customers online. The report's policy recommendations include passing a national data breach statute requiring companies to disclose major losses of personal and credit card data; legislation to define consumer rights with respect to how data about their activities was employed; extending privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens; and ensuring data collected about students is used only for educational purposes. The report also recognizes that collected data has "the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections in how personal information is used in housing, credit, employment, health, education, and the marketplace." Podesta says learning algorithms often used to inform online ads also can generate a digital profile of a person inferring race, gender, or sexual orientation. "The final computer-generated product or decision...can mask prejudices while maintaining a patina of scientific objectivity," he warns. Princeton University scientist Edward W. Felten says both government and industry have a shared responsibility to address the risk of discrimination based on data analysis.
Computer System Automatically Solves Word Problems
MIT News (05/02/14) Larry Hardesty
Researchers at the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory say they have developed a computer system that can automatically solve the type of word problems common in introductory algebra classes. They say the system could lead to educational tools that identify errors in students' reasoning or evaluate the difficulty of word problems. The system also could be used solve more complicated problems in geometry, physics, and finance. "The fact that you're looking across multiple sentences to generate this semantic representation is really something new," says MIT graduate student Nate Kushman. The system exploits two existing computational tools. Macsyma, a computer algebra system, provides a way to distill algebraic equations with the same general structure into a common template. The other tool is the type of sentence parser used in most natural language-processing research. The researchers used machine learning to teach the system how to perform that mapping, and to produce the equation templates. In determining how to map natural language onto equation templates, the system examined hundreds of thousands of "features" of the training examples, some of which related specific words to problem types.
Apple, Facebook, Others Defy Authorities, Notify Users of Secret Data Demands
The Washington Post (05/02/14) Craig Timberg; Ann E. Marimow
Large U.S. tech firms increasingly are defying federal investigators' mandate that they give them access to users' online data without informing those users in advance. For example, Google already notifies users about federal data requests as a matter of routine, but recently adopted a new policy detailing the circumstances under which notification is withheld. Such practices are being driven by last year's revelation about U.S. National Security Agency surveillance of online services. "It serves to chill the unbridled, cost-free collection of data," notes attorney Albert Gidari Jr. Prosecutors say this could threaten criminal cases by alerting crooks and giving them time to destroy important evidence before it can be collected. Tech firms' shifting legal standards most directly impact federal, state, and local criminal investigators, who have discovered companies increasingly protest data requests once considered routine. For data apart from content, such as records detailing email senders and recipients, companies have continued accepting subpoenas, but tell investigators users will be alerted prior to disclosure. This is forcing investigators into a dilemma of either rescinding data requests, permitting notification, or seeking gag orders or search warrants from increasingly skeptical magistrate judges.
Mobile Users May Not Buy Into Instant Gratification Cues
Penn State News (04/28/14) Matt Swayne
A recent Pennsylvania State University (PSU) study found that gimmicky contest ads and flashy free-prize messages may be an instant turnoff for mobile Web users. The study showed that a tempting offer of a free prize drawing for registering on a mobile website led users to distrust the site, according to PSU professor S. Shyam Sundar. "It's a boomerang effect--marketers may think that they are activating the instant gratification heuristic when they display time-sensitive offers, but what they're actually doing is cueing red flags about the site," Sundar says. Although free-prize ads are common on the Internet, the researchers suggest marketers should seek other ways to reach mobile customers. The researchers also tested a warning cue that seemed to prompt more conflicting reactions from users. The researchers found users became more worried about security when a security alert appeared, but they were willing to reveal more information about their social media accounts after viewing the security prompt. "The 'privacy paradox' of giving away information when we are most concerned about its safety may not be all that paradoxical if you consider that the information we give away is not quite private," Sundar says. The researchers presented their findings this week at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.
Stern Talk From Chief of FCC on Open Net
The New York Times (05/01/14) Edward Wyatt
U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler says the agency will draft and aggressively enforce stringent new net neutrality rules to ensure consumer access to new technologies and startups that might become competitors, even if it means preempting state laws that limit municipalities from offering inexpensive broadband to residents. Wheeler made this pronouncement two weeks before the FCC issues a first draft of his new open Internet rules for public comment. The agency's two previous attempts to do so were defeated by the U.S. Court of Appeals. Sources say the proposal allows broadband companies to offer some content providers a faster channel for transmitting video and services, provided they do not slow down other content to do so. However, Wheeler says the FCC would be empowered to act against a company if it was found to be not delivering a "commercially reasonable" service. "If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power at our disposal to stop it," he says. That may include redefining broadband service so it could be regulated strictly as a utility. Despite Wheeler's assurances, critics say any standards that provide for Internet lanes with varying levels of service goes against net neutrality principles.
Extreme Scale Design Automation
CCC Blog (04/28/14) Ann Drobnis
A group of researchers from various universities recently co-organized and held three workshops on Charting the Future of Electronic Design Automation, writes University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Josep Torrellas, director of the Center for Programmable Extreme Scale Computing. Torrellas notes device integration in silicon chips is increasing to unprecedented levels, and the trend is expected to continue for several generations. He says existing electronic design automation (EDA) techniques and tools cannot effectively harness the scale possible in today's chips, and are incapable of dealing with the types of systems expected within 10 years. The first two workshops focused on educating students in this field and on collaboration with the semiconductor industry. Intel's Noel Menezes gave a keynote for the second workshop that outlined where the industry is heading and the types of professionals that are needed. Meanwhile, the third workshop identified the paradigms and algorithms that are needed to dramatically reduce the cost of silicon. Torrellas notes the researchers participating in the third workshop also argued the research community has placed a significant investment in the development of new fabrication technologies to augment or replace silicon devices. The series of workshops was co-sponsored by ACM SIGDA.
Standards for Computer Science Education Need Improvement
U.S. News & World Report (04/28/14) Eliza Krigman
The recent U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference held a panel during which subject matter specialists issued a warning about the state of computer science education in the United States. The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) wants "to draw attention to the fact that there is a crisis in computer science education in our country," said CSTA chair Deborah Seehorn. CSTA has released "Running on Empty," a report that compares and contrasts computer science education on a state-by-state basis. Meanwhile, Oracle Academy's Allison J. Derbenwick Miller said although programs such as code.org have made some progress in advancing computer science education, that success might give people the false impression there is not a computer science crisis in the country. Panel members also said women of color are the most underrepresented category in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, access to a quality computer science education will be a defining social justice issue of our time, and there is a need for better collaboration between industry and educators. Black Girls Code executive director Kimberly Bryant called on conference attendees to "find ways to partner with organizations like mine to bring what we are doing in the after-school setting into the school setting."
A Discovery Is Made That Could Revolutionize the Computer and Telecommunications Industry
University of Cadiz (Spain) (04/30/14)
Researchers at the University of Cadiz say they have discovered how to modify the behavior of topological insulators in a controlled way. Topological insulators are viewed as the forerunners to a new generation of microprocessors with high performance and low energy consumption that will revolutionize the computer and telecommunications industries. The materials are insulators on the inside but behave like conductive metals on the surface, and when they are only a few atoms thick their surface can conduct electricity with almost 100-percent efficiency. Collaborating with researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of York, the team has demonstrated both theoretically and experimentally that the material's behavior is proportionally correlated to its distortion, which opens the door to the possibility of developing devices whose behavior can be modified in a controlled way. The Cadiz team focused on calculating the structural distortion in high-resolution images from electronic microscopes. The final objective is to manufacture actual devices of exceptional characteristics. Topological insulating materials could potentially be used to wire the components of a microprocessor, enabling the electrons to flow at near-light speeds with a practically non-existent energy consumption, thereby reducing the generation of heat, which would enable calculation speed to be increased exponentially.
Carnegie Mellon-Disney Researcher Invents 3D Printing Technique for Making Cuddly Stuff
Science Codex (04/29/14)
Researchers at Disney Research Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have developed a type of three-dimensional (3D) printer that produces 3D objects made of a form of loose felt. "We're really extending the set of materials available for 3D printing and opening up new possibilities for what can be manufactured," says CMU professor Scott Hudson. Similar to other 3D printers, the new system can make objects by working directly from computerized designs. However, CMU's printer feeds out yarn instead of lines of melted plastic. A barbed felting needle attached to the printer head repeatedly then pierces the yarn, dragging down individual fibers into the yarn in the layers below, entangling the fibers and bonding the layers together. Hudson notes the printer does not achieve the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers because the yarn is much thicker than the layers of plastic deposited in fused deposition modeling printing. He also notes the felt is weaker than typical fabric, so if the soft objects are to be attached to a hard object, a layer of nylon mesh fabric must be incorporated during the printing process to provide reinforcement to prevent the material from tearing off at the attachment point. Hudson says possible applications for the printer include making parts for soft robots designed to touch or be near people. Hudson discussed the printer at the recent ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.
Feds Would Have a Hard Time Keeping Zero-Days Under Wraps
NextGov.com (04/30/14) Aliya Sternstein
Federal officials have a strategy for keeping quiet about zero-day bugs so the intelligence community can exploit them, but there are risks intelligence agencies with differing agendas could disclose the bugs' existence. White House cyber czar Michael Daniel says the Obama administration has set up an interagency decision-making process that "helps ensure that all of the pros and cons are properly considered and weighed." Yet Duke University professor Charles Dunlap says in all probability this process involves representatives from the various intelligence entities along with all the Cabinet-level departments, which "inevitably increases the possibility of an inadvertent or even deliberate disclosure of a decision not to publicize a particular cyber vulnerability." Dunlap maintains consensus is likely the best policy even if a government-wide negotiation on nondisclosure does not work. "In situations like this where the choice--whichever way it goes--will always be second guessed, it is usually better to be inclusive in the decision-making process, especially inside the Beltway," he argues. Daniel also notes "building up a huge stockpile of undisclosed vulnerabilities while leaving the Internet vulnerable and the American people unprotected would not be in our national security interest."
More Speed, Less Interference: Computing, Improving Electromagnetic Interference
A*STAR Research (04/27/14)
Researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) say they have developed a semi-analytical model that can compute electromagnetic interference on an electronic circuit board 10 times faster than existing commercial software. The researchers note that problems of electromagnetic compatibility are arising as electronic components on electronic circuit boards continue to shrink, but the suite of computer modeling tools developed by the electronics industry to address the issue is cumbersome and requires a lot of computing power. The team uses mathematical equations to describe the electrical currents in a conducting wire, and adapt the physics of these transmission-line equations to the unique properties of circuit boards, making them far easier to solve by an algorithm than the other, coarser modeling. The researchers say the first test of the software reliably solved several standard problems for electronic circuits, achieving very good agreement, especially for frequencies below 1 gigahertz. A task that took commercial software more than two hours on a regular laptop needed less than 10 minutes with the A*STAR software. "Our computational problem-solving kit can shorten electromagnetic interference trouble-shooting in the product design phase and therefore translates into time and cost savings for the industry," says the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing's Xian-Ke Gao.
In Virtual Town of Alphaville, Students Prep for Cyber Sieges
Government Computer News (04/25/14) John Breeden II
The Michigan Cyber Range uses the virtual town of Alphaville to help train cybersecurity students to secure critical infrastructure. Joe Adams, director of the Michigan Cyber Range, came from the military and says Alphaville is inspired by the mock towns used to train soldiers in squad tactics and weapons. The town exists as virtual machines set up to emulate the various networks of a small town, including utilities, local government networks, schools, and businesses featuring everything from public websites to industrial control systems. The Michigan Cyber Range currently offers two classes built around different exercises--a red team/blue team exercise with one group of students attacking and the other defending, and a "capture the flag"-style exercise in which teams compete to secure a "beacon" and move it through Alphaville's networks. There are plans to add a cyber forensics class with exercises tasking students with responding to the aftermath of a data breach, and adding new elements to Alphaville, such as a simulated hospital to teach students to handle HIPAA-protected records. The facility operates on a National Guard base, but Adams says the operation is completely unclassified and open to both the public and private sectors.
Cars That Look and Listen to Find Themselves a Parking Spot
IEEE Spectrum (04/28/14) Philip E. Ross
South Korean researchers affiliated with Hanyang University are developing a system to fully automate the parking process, including helping the car find a parking space. The system combines the car's ultrasound sensors, cameras, and odometer to create a completely automated parking system. The researchers say the sensor-fusion system can keep the computational time to just 32 milliseconds, compared with 82 milliseconds for a vision-only system. "These results reveal that the proposed system can surely operate in real time," they say. The odometer tracks the car's position, enabling the system to determine a new angle of observation and use it to update its earlier estimate. The continuously updating system improves accuracy and helps the system handle roads that are not perfectly flat. The system offers a selection of possible parking spots to the driver, who selects one by punching a touchscreen. The researchers note the current system cannot work at night or in dimly lit parking lots, but they are developing new algorithms and testing cameras with greater range to overcome those problems. The researchers also note they are developing separate programs to work in daylight and at night or in closed spaces.
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