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Welcome to the March 23, 2015 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Hacking BIOS Chips Isn't Just the NSA's Domain Anymore
Wired News (03/20/15) Kim Zetter

Two security researchers have demonstrated proof-of-concept malware capable of remotely infecting the BIOS chips of multiple systems. Xeno Kovah and Corey Kallenberg, former defense contractors who founded their own BIOS security firm, demonstrated their malware last week at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. The malware, which they call LightEater, uses several incursion vulnerabilities to gain access to the system management mode (SMM) on systems with Intel processors. Access to the SMM enables the malware to gain escalated privileges above and beyond administrator and root-level access. With this access, the malware can rewrite the contents of the BIOS chip that makes the infection persistent and stealthy. From there, the malware can install rootkits, steal passwords, and access data on the system. It also is capable of reading data from the system's memory, which means it potentially could subvert systems using the Tails operating system used by journalists and others attempting to maintain secrecy. Kovah and Kallenberg say they have contacted the manufacturers of the vulnerable systems they have identified and patches are forthcoming. However, there is a very weak track record of users applying BIOS patches even when they are made available.

Despite Demand, Women Comprise Only 11 Percent of Cybersecurity Workers
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (03/21/15) Andrew Conte

Despite growing demand for cybersecurity workers, women make up only 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce, according to the International Information System Security Certification Consortium. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is helping to address the program with several local and nationwide programs seeking to increase women's participation in the field. Along with Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Facebook, CMU is a backer of the Women in Cybersecurity conference, which has grown rapidly in recent years. CMU's efforts to support and encourage women in computer science are spearheaded by its Women@SCS program. The program provides peer support, mentors, leadership opportunities, and social events to female students and faculty. In addition to helping college students, CMU also is encouraging younger girls to pursue an interest in computer science; in particular, middle school students. CMU's School of Computer Science offers Creative Technology Nights to middle school girls on Monday nights. The program is run by women studying computer science and teaches girls about robots, code-breaking, and other computer science topics. Other Pittsburgh-area institutions also are focusing on middle school girls. The Carnegie Science Center, for example, runs an after-school program focused on computer science for more than 200 Pittsburgh-area middle school girls.

Scientists Invent New Way to Control Light, Critical for Next Gen of Supercomputing
UCF Today (03/19/15) Barbara Abney

Researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) have used a method known as direct laser writing to create a device resembling a plastic honeycomb that can steer light beams around very tight curves while keeping the integrity and intensity of the beam intact. The researchers say the method is a more effective way to rapidly transmit data on electronic circuit boards by using light. "One of challenges when using light is figuring out a way to make tight bends so we can replace the metal wiring more effectively," says UTEP professor Raymond Rumpf. Direct laser writing could become a flexible means for manufacturing next-generation computer devices, notes UCF professor Stephen Kuebler. The researchers used direct laser writing to create the miniature lattices, and then they ran light beams through the lattices and confirmed they could flow light without loss through turns that are twice as tight as any done previously. The light beams can make the ultra-sharp turns because the researchers designed the plastic device so its lattice steers the beam around corners without losing energy. Rumpf says the technology will first appear in high-performance supercomputers before it is found in conventional laptops.

Satellite Imagery Can Aid Development Projects
MIT News (03/23/15) David L. Chandler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed software that can identify houses in rural villages from satellite images, potentially saving time that would otherwise be spent sending teams from village to village. The researchers' initial projects focused on villages in India and Africa. The first project selected villages in sub-Saharan Africa for a program of unrestricted cash grants to help people in low-income rural areas improve their standard of living by enabling them to buy equipment, livestock, and other goods. The system selected the poorest villages by counting the percentage of houses with thatched roofs compared with those topped by more-expensive metal roofs. The second project selected villages in rural India for the installation of microgrids to supply electricity from solar panels and battery-storage systems, and then determined the best sites for those panels and the most efficient network layout for distributing the power. For both projects, the process begins by having users visually examine the satellite images and pick out the houses. Those examples are then entered in as training data for a machine-learning system, which generalizes the criteria for determining what is a house and what is not. Over time, the program can learn from the hand-picked data and get better at determining where the houses are, according to MIT researcher Brian Spatocco.

Robotic Materials: Changing With the World Around Them
CU-Boulder News Center (03/19/15)

University of Colorado (CU) Boulder professor Nikolaus Correll is addressing the educational gap facing the field of nano- and microscale manufacturing with a freshman-level engineering projects class called Materials That Think. "We expose engineering students to both materials and computing, no matter what their background is," Correll says. He says in the future, robotic materials could be used in everyday objects, but they require tight integration between sensing, computation, and actually changing the properties of the underlying material. Although materials can already be programmed to change some of their properties in response to specific stimuli, robotic materials can sense stimuli and determine how to respond on their own. Correll offers as an example artificial skin outfitted with microphones that would analyze the sounds of a texture rubbing the skin and direct information back to the central computer only when important events occurred. "The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin," he says. "An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central 'brain' if it touches something new."

Could Analog Computing Accelerate Complex Computer Simulations? (03/19/15)

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a request for information (RFI) on methods for using analog approaches to speed up computation of the mathematics that characterize scientific computing. "The standard [digital] computer cluster equipped with multiple central processing units [CPUs], each programmed to tackle a particular piece of a problem, is just not designed to solve the kinds of equations at the core of large-scale simulations, such as those describing complex fluid dynamics and plasmas," says DARPA program manager Vincent Tang. These equations, or partial differential equations, describe fundamental physical principles such as motion, diffusion, and equilibrium. However, they involve continuous rates of change over a large range of physical parameters relating to the problems of interest, making then unsuitable to being broken up and solved in discrete pieces by individual CPUs. Tang says novel computational substrates could exceed the performance of modern CPUs for certain specialized problems, if they can be scaled and integrated into modern computer architectures. The RFI seeks new processing paradigms with the potential to overcome current barriers in computing performance. "In general, we're interested in information on all approaches, analog, digital, or hybrid ones, that have the potential to revolutionize how we perform scientific simulations," he says.

Atlas of Thoughts
Aarhus University (03/18/15) Rasmus Rorbaek Christensen

Aarhus University researchers are using computer games to help them tackle some of the fundamental problems of quantum computing, while also learning about the human brain. Associate professor Jacob Sherson says humans are able to approach problems in a way computers currently cannot, which can be useful in tackling the stubborn problems of quantum computing. To tease out human solutions to such problems, Sherson and his colleagues developed Quantum Moves, a game that involves moving atoms around to score points. Sherson says the game has made it extremely easy for even a relative layman to solve complex quantum questions. He says using the game, "a player who'd only studied ninth-grade physics...was able to solve a quantum physics problem that you'd normally need a Ph.D. in physics just to understand." At the same time that Quantum Moves is yielding solutions to quantum computing problems, it also is teaching researchers about how the human mind learns and approaches a problem. The Aarhus researchers are exploring the concept further with a new game, Quantum Minds, developed in partnership with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, which seeks to gather more information about the human mind while also teaching computers how to approach problems in a more human way.

Robot Model for Infant Learning Shows Bodily Posture May Affect Memory and Learning
IU Bloomington Newsroom (03/18/15) Liz Rosdeitcher

Indiana University (IU) researchers have used robot models of infants to study how "objects of cognition," such as words or memories of physical objects, are connected to the position of the body. The study is based on the field of epigenetic robotics, in which researchers work to create robots that learn and develop like children, through interaction with their environment. "This study shows that the body plays a role in early object name learning, and how toddlers use the body's position in space to connect ideas," says IU professor Linda Smith. "The creation of a robot model for infant learning has far-reaching implications for how the brains of young people work." The researchers used both robots and infants to examine the role bodily position played in the brain's ability to "map" names to objects. The study found that consistency of the body's posture and spatial relationship to an object as an object's name was shown and spoken aloud were critical to successfully connecting the name to the object. The researchers arrived at these result by conducting a series of experiments, first with robots programmed to map the name of an object to the object through shared association with a posture, then with children of ages 12 to 18 months.

High-Resolution 3D Scans Built From Drone Photos
Technology Review (03/19/15) Tom Simonite

Drones offer an inexpensive way to capture three-dimensional (3D) scans of buildings, terrain, and other objects. A high-resolution 3D replica of Rio's iconic Christ statue, built from more than 2,000 photos captured by a drone using an ordinary digital camera, was unveiled in February. The Swiss company Pix4D, the maker of software than can build highly accurate models by comparing many different overlapping photos, collaborated with drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs and researchers at PUC University of Rio de Janeiro on the project. The digital double was accurate to between two to five centimeters, enough to capture individual mosaic tiles. Pix4D CEO Christoph Strecha says being able to easily and frequently capture detailed 3D imagery could have many uses, such as speeding up construction projects and helping Hollywood make better special effects. The control and coordination of drones in challenging conditions such as wind could determine the ambitions of drone scanning, notes Rochester Institute of Technology Center for Imaging Science professor Carl Salvaggio. "Perhaps when there are 'armies' of drones in the air, we will see a different landscape emerge," he says.

'Smart Bandage' Detects Bedsores Before They Are Visible to Doctors
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (03/17/15) Sarah Yang

University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed a smart bandage that uses electrical currents to detect early tissue damage from pressure ulcers before they can be seen by human eyes and while recovery is still possible. "We can imagine this being carried by a nurse for spot-checking target areas on a patient, or it could be incorporated into a wound dressing to regularly monitor how it's healing," says Berkeley professor Michel Maharbiz. The system takes advantage of the electrical changes that occur when a healthy cell starts dying. Pressure ulcers are injuries that can result after prolonged pressure cuts off adequate blood supply to the skin. "This bandage could provide an easy early-warning system that would allow intervention before the injury is permanent," says University of California, San Francisco professor Michael Harrison. To create the bandage, the researchers printed an array of dozens of electrodes onto a thin, flexible film. They then discharged a very small current between the electrodes to create a spatial map of the underlying tissue based upon the flow of electricity at different frequencies, a technique known as impedance spectroscopy. "Our device is a comprehensive demonstration that tissue health in a living organism can be locally mapped using impedance spectroscopy," says Berkeley researcher Sarah Swisher.

Caltech Scientists Develop Cool Process to Make Better Graphene
California Institute of Technology (03/18/15) Ker Than

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers have invented a technique to produce graphene at room temperature, which they say could lead to commercially feasible graphene-based light-emitting diodes, large-panel displays, and flexible electronics. "Our new method can consistently produce high-mobility and nearly strain-free graphene in a single step in just a few minutes without high temperature," says Caltech professor Nai-Chang Yeh. In 2012, Caltech researcher David Boyd was trying to reproduce a graphene-manufacturing process, and after unintentionally letting a copper foil heat for longer than usual, he realized the trick to graphene growth is to have a very clean surface, one without copper oxide. Boyd then used a system first developed in the 1960s to remove the copper oxide at much lower temperatures. The ability to produce graphene without the need for active heating reduces manufacturing costs and results in a better product because fewer defects are generated. The researchers note the graphene produced using their technique is better than conventional methods because it is stronger and it has the highest electrical mobility yet measured for synthetic graphene. The researchers also found the method produced graphene in a more orderly fashion, with the material deposited in lines that grow into a seamless sheet, adding to its mechanical and electrical integrity.

Deanonymizing Tor Users With Raptor Attacks
Help Net Security (03/17/15) Zeljka Zorz

Researchers from Princeton University and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Zurich have demonstrated the effectiveness of a suite of traffic analysis attacks that deanonymize Tor users. The team calls the suite Raptor attacks, and says they are composed of three individual attacks whose effects are compounded. First, Raptor exploits the asymmetric nature of Internet routing, as the BGP path from a sender to a receiver can be different than the BGP path from the receiver to the sender. Raptor next exploits natural churn in Internet routing, in which BGP paths change over time due to link or router failures, the setup of new Internet links or peering relationships, or changes in autonomous system routing policies. Third, Raptor exploits the inherent insecurity of Internet routing, in which strategic adversaries can manipulate Internet routing via BGP hijack and interception attacks against the Tor network. In tests against both historical BGP data and Traceroute data, and on the live Tor network, asymmetric traffic analysis attacks deanonymized users with 95-percent accuracy, and a BGP interception attack deanonymized Tor users with 90-percent accuracy. The team also shared techniques to detect and prevent these attacks.
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