Welcome to the February 18, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Russian Researchers Expose Breakthrough U.S. Spying Program
Reuters (02/16/15) Joseph Menn
Kaspersky Lab on Monday said a group it calls the Equation group has developed spyware that can lurk in the firmware of most hard drives currently on the market. Although Kaspersky did not explicitly make the connection, the Equation group is widely believed to be a euphemism for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Kaspersky says developing the spyware, which has been found on hard drives from all of the market's major players, would have required access to the hard drives' source code. Hard drive manufacturers have denied supplying NSA with their source code, but experts say the spy agency has numerous ways of obtaining the source code, including routine government security audits. Kaspersky found personal computers infected with the Equation group's spyware in 30 countries, primarily in Iran, Russia, and Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen, and Algeria. Targets included government and military institutions, telecom firms, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists. In addition to the spyware, Kaspersky also described other Equation group programs, including compromising jihadist websites, infected USB drives and CDs, and a self-spreading computer worm dubbed Fanny that was used to deliver the spyware and may have links to the Stuxnet worm used to target Iran's nuclear program several years ago.
Obama Calls for New Cooperation to Wrangle the 'Wild West' Internet
The New York Times (02/13/15) Nicole Perlroth; David E. Sanger
During a visit to Stanford University to meet with a group of leaders from the technology, finance, health care, and energy sectors, President Barrack Obama called on the private sector to take greater steps to share information about cybersecurity threats. During the event, Obama signed a new Executive Order urging companies to form and join information-sharing hubs to facilitate the easy exchange of data on online threats and receive classified threat information from the government. However, the order stopped short of exempting companies from legal liability that could result from this information sharing, a protection that many in the private sector wanted. Such protections would have to come through legislation, and that legislation has failed to pass in Congress. Various leaders from the private sector spoke at the event in support of the president's plan, including Bernard Tyson, chairman of Kaiser Permanente, who said the goal of such sharing initiatives was strictly to share threat information, not the sensitive data many public sector firms hold. Little was seen at the meeting of the hostility many anticipated between private-sector leaders such as Apple's Tim Cook who have clashed with the government over issues such as digital surveillance and encryption.
Smarter Multicore Chips
MIT News (02/18/15) Larry Hardesty
In 2013, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Daniel Sanchez and researcher Nathan Beckman described a system that distributes data around multicore chips' memory banks, improving execution times by 18 percent on average while increasing energy efficiency. This month, members of Sanchez's team extended the system that controls the distribution of data as well as computations. In simulations involving a 64-core chip, the new system increased computational speeds 46 percent while reducing power consumption 36 percent. "A large part of what we did in the previous project was to place data close to computation," Sanchez says. "But what we've seen is that how you place that computation has a significant effect on how well you can place data nearby." The MIT researchers developed an algorithm that quickly finds a solution that is more than 99-percent as efficient as that produced by standard place-and-route algorithms. "You spread the data around in such a way that you don't have a lot of [memory] banks overcommitted or all the data in a region of the chip," Sanchez says. The new system monitors the chip's behavior and reallocates data and threads every 25 milliseconds, which is enough time for a chip to perform 50 million operations.
Digital Skills Crisis Looming, Peers Warn
Times Higher Education (02/17/15) Chris Parr
The U.K. is facing a digital skills crisis and the higher education sector "has not responded to the urgent need for reskilling," according to "Make or Break: The U.K.'s Digital Future," a new report from the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee. The report, which says universities could better serve students by developing shorter, more flexible provisions to add to their existing courses, calls for targeted skills funding to help institutions develop such courses and ensure all students are digitally competent. In addition, the report calls on universities to build stronger links to industry and work more closely with digital organizations in their local areas. "I would have expected, and do expect in the next 10 years, a much more rapid embrace of sandwich courses, shorter courses, longer courses, more part-time courses," says U.K. minister Nick Boles. The report says higher education institutions should lead regional ecosystems, or clusters, where universities form closer ties with local industry. The committee is especially critical of the way research is funded, and calls for a review of spending on research to ensure U.K. spending is comparable with that of other leading economies. The report also calls for "a commitment to increase significantly the number of girls studying [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects at further and higher education."
Apple Gears Up to Challenge Tesla in Electronic Cars
The Wall Street Journal (02/13/15) Daisuke Wakabayashi; Mike Ramsey
Apple reportedly has several hundred of its employees working on a project to create a new Apple-branded electric vehicle. The project, reportedly was ordered by CEO Tim Cook last year, is code-named "Titan" and is said to be focused on creating a vehicle that resembles a minivan. Apple has not announced the project and has not commented on stories about it, suggesting the company's commitment to the project is somewhat uncertain. Apple is always investigating various new technologies and products, and breakthroughs in electric vehicle technology could be valuable to the company even if it decides not to pursue a commercial vehicle. However, Apple also has invested a great deal in the project and put very high-level people in charge, suggesting it is serious. The project is led by Steve Zadesky, an Apple vice president and former Ford engineer who played a role in the design of the iPod and iPhone. Apple has hired several high-level automotive engineers and executives, including Johann Jungwirth, former president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, and Mar Newsom, an industrial designer who previously created a concept car for Ford. In addition, Apple has developed a track record for upending industries, including accelerating the shift to digital music and establishing the smartphone market.
An Exclusive Look Inside DARPA's Plan to Visualize Cyberoperations
The Christian Science Monitor (02/16/15) Sara Sorcher
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a new project it calls Plan X that would visualize the often highly abstract world of cyberoperations. Those who work in cybersecurity today deal almost exclusively in strings and sets of numbers and letters. The goal of Plan X is to transform those reams of alphanumeric data into vivid graphics and three-dimensional visualizations that can be quickly and easily understood, and that operators can interact with as though they were using a smartphone or other mobile device. The visualizations would enable specialists to assess the health of a network at a glance, and easily identify and address potential problems. For example, a military specialist could counter an attack by dragging a block of code off a virtual shelf onto a visualization of the attack. The program also aims to make cyberoperations much more efficient. Researchers expect that with Plan X they could write, test, and deploy a mission in as little as 72 hours, whereas today such a task can take months. Plan X has a budget of $125 million and is expected to last four years.
Rare Alan Turing Journal Shows His Genius at Work
CNet (02/14/15) Donna Tam
Two decades after its discovery, a rare handwritten journal belonging to computing pioneer Alan Turing will be auctioned off this spring in San Francisco. The journal will be put up for auction by Bonhams in April and is expected to fetch "at least seven figures," a portion of which will be donated to charity. Cassandra Hatton, a specialist in fine books, manuscripts, and space history with Bonhams, believes Turing wrote the 56-page journal between 1940 and 1942, a period when he was working for the British government to help crack Nazi codes. Hatton says the journal shows Turing trying to find and correct mistakes in mathematical notation. "He's looking at how his predecessors are looking at mathematical notations...he's trying to see where they went wrong so he can make it right." The journal contains Turing's musings on mathematical theory and notation, as well as a dream journal written by Robin Gandy, a colleague of Turing's who was entrusted with his papers after Turing's death in 1954. The journal was locked away by Gandy and only discovered after his death in 1995. Hatton believes the journal is likely the only such handwritten manuscript Turing left behind, as he preferred to use a typewriter.
Fight-Sensing Cameras to Cut Crime on Britain's Streets
Cardiff University News (02/12/15)
Cardiff University researchers are developing smart cameras that can sense violence in the streets. The project aims to analyze nighttime crowds and provide real-time alerts helping to prevent serious injury and reducing costs to health services. "This work builds on an active collaboration with the Violence and Society Research Group and research expertise in video analysis," says Cardiff professor David Marshall. "Detecting violence from [closed-circuit television (CCTV] camera footage presents some interesting technical challenges due to the time of day [night-time], the need to operate in all weather conditions, camera positions, and recognizing people's often complex activities in such footage." Cardiff professor Simon Moore notes smart camera technology that can pinpoint violence is a cost-effective way of helping police to do their jobs. "Officers can't monitor hundreds of city-center CCTV cameras all the time," Moore says. "By using imaging technology, officers will be alerted to violence 'hotspots' in real time, helping to further reduce violence. It's a great way of using technology to make the streets safer for all of us."
Black Girls Code Founder Looks to Expand Skills Outreach, Challenges CIOs to Help the Cause
Computerworld (02/11/15) Mary K. Pratt
Kimberly Bryant says she founded the nonprofit Black Girls Code in 2011 partly to provide her own daughter with a better digital experience. Since then, the nonprofit has formed 700 chapters across the U.S. and one in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bryant hopes to eventually expand worldwide. She notes half of all girls express interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in middle school, but by high school that number falls to less than 10 percent. Bryant believes having broadband access in communities of color is a major issue because it is this access to devices that minorities can use to create technology. She says a major obstacle is having corporate support and funding to reach all of the students who need this opportunity. The curriculum is culturally sensitive and focuses on coding as well as robotics and gaming, and the aim is to demonstrate technology touches everything and every industry, and to enable the girls to find their own niche. Classes are project-based and put participants in the role of builder. For example, they can develop their own games around topics they find interesting. In the near future, Bryant hopes Black Girls Code will launch chapters in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico with one of its partners to reach 1,000 girls via bilingual classes.
New Algorithms Locate Where a Video was Filmed From Its Images and Sounds
Plataforma SINC (Spain) (02/11/15)
Ramon Llull University researchers have developed a system that can geolocate videos by comparing their audiovisual content with a worldwide multimedia database. "In this field we use some physics and mathematical vectors taken from the field of recognition of acoustic sources, because they have already demonstrated positive results," says Ramon Llull researcher Xavier Sevillano. The data was grouped in clusters so when using Ramon Llull-developed algorithms they can be compared with those of a large collection of recorded videos already geolocated around the world. The researchers used nearly 10,000 sequences as a reference from the MediaEval Placing task audiovisual database, a benchmarking initiative for assessment of algorithms for multimedia content. "The videos which are most similar in audiovisual terms to what we want to find are searched for in the database, to detect the most probable geographical coordinates," Sevillano says. The system can locate 3 percent of videos within a 10-kilometer radius of their actual geographical location, and in 1 percent of cases it is accurate to one kilometer. "This method could help rescue teams to track down where a person or group disappeared in a remote place, detecting the locations shown in the videos, which could have been uploaded to a social network before losing contact," Sevillano says.
Lab-in-a-Box Takes Aim at Doctors' Computer Activity
UCSD News (CA) (02/11/15) Doug Ramsey
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have developed the Lab-in-a-Box, an assortment of sensors and software designed to monitor a doctor's office, particularly during consultations with patients. Lab-in-a-Box aims to analyze the physician's behavior and better understand the dynamics of the interactions of the doctor with electronic medical records and patients in front of them, and eventually provide useful input on how to run a medical practice more efficiently. Lab-in-a-Box is designed to merge, synchronize, and segment data streams from the various sensors. The UCSD researchers will use the software to compare data from different settings and different types of medical practices to pinpoint those factors that lead to distractions across the board, or that affect only specific medical specialties. "In order to intervene effectively, we need to first understand the complex system composed by patients, doctors, and electronic medical record in depth, and this is what our study will finally yield," says UCSD researcher Nadir Weibel. He says the technology "has the potential to uncover important insights and inform the next generation of health IT systems."
Stanford Engineer Produces Free Braille-Writer App
Stanford Report (02/10/15) Andrew Myers
Stanford University researchers have developed iBrailler Notes, an iPad app they say is the world's first Braille writing platform designed for a tablet computer. To locate keys, users hold their fingertips anywhere on the glass surface of an iPad, and iBrailler Notes then draws the keys around the fingers. The app is similar to a traditional Braille writer in that it uses a series of eight keys. If the user gets disoriented and loses track of the keys, they can recalibrate the app by lifting their hands off the glass and putting them down again. The app will automatically orient the keys to the fingertips' new position. iBrailler Notes also includes an undo and redo function, which requires a clockwise or counterclockwise twist of a single fingertip. The app also provides search results by speech for users who would otherwise have no way to read the results. In addition, the app accommodates multiple Braille formats, including mathematics, scientific, and other languages. "The iBrailler is the fastest, most capable Braille writer out there," says Stanford professor Adrian Lew. The basic version of the app is free.
The Security Implications of IoT: A Roundtable Discussion With Four Experts
Network World (02/10/15) John Dix
To investigate the potential security implications of the Internet of Things (IoT), Network World convened a panel of four security professionals: Cisco's Mark Blackmer, Cornell Tech professor Ari Juels, Carnegie Mellon University professor Patrick Tague, and Tempered Networks' David Mattes. The four agree security is going to be a major issue for IoT, although one that is unlikely to be addressed immediately. The group sees IoT taking off already, even as few vendors are addressing security. Tague expects this to remain the status quo until the world sees its "first major software-based real world disaster," after which regulation is likely to force vendors to address security. The panelists say IoT security concerns will center on the issues of authentication and data ownership. In a world in which an individual user is interacting with dozens or hundreds of devices that also will likely be interacting with many other users, authentication becomes an extremely thorny issue, as does determining who has what rights to data generated by these devices. The panel members expect security solutions to these and other issues to initially go in several directions before standardization, either through regulation or inertia, takes hold. However, none feel confident these issues will be well in hand within the next few years.
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