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Welcome to the April 8, 2020 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Maria Balcan. Balcan to Receive ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award for Innovations to Machine Learning
Association for Computing Machinery
April 8, 2020

Carnegie Mellon University's Maria Florina “Nina” Balcan has been named recipient of the 2019 ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award for her contributions to minimally supervised machine learning. The award is given to the outstanding young computer professional of the year, selected on the basis of a single recent major technical or service contribution made while he or she was 35 years of age or less. “Nina Balcan wonderfully meets the criteria for the ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, as many of her groundbreaking contributions occurred long before she turned 35,” said ACM President Cherri M. Pancake. “Although she is still in the early stages of her career, she has already established herself as the world leader in the theory of how AI systems can learn with limited supervision. More broadly, her work has realigned the foundations of machine learning, and consequently ushered in many new applications that have brought about leapfrog advances in this exciting area of artificial intelligence."

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An image of COVID-19. AI-Powered Search Engine Makes It Easier to Find Information in the Fight Against COVID-19
University of Waterloo Cheriton School of Computer Science
April 7, 2020

Researchers at the University of Waterloo Cheriton School of Computer Science in Canada and New York University have developed a dedicated search engine for researchers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Neural Covidex supplies access to the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI)'s COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a publicly available, curated archive of roughly 45,000 scholarly articles, medical reports, journal articles, and preprints about COVID-19 and the coronavirus virus family. Cheriton's Jimmy Lin channeled his expertise in building systems for extracting insights from text into creating natural language processing and information retrieval components for exploring the CORD-19 dataset. Said Lin, "We're working hard to improve our system incrementally by leveraging the latest AI techniques."

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Not All Privacy Apps are Created Equal
Adam Conner-Simons
March 31, 2020

An anonymity technique called k-anonymity does not prevent a user from being able to be identified by looking at the platform's wider data, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). K-anonymity is used by many companies and platforms claiming they can anonymize consumers' data and comply with new laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The researchers cite a new type of attack called "predicate singling out" that is modeled after a kind of GDPR privacy violation called "singling out." The MIT team demonstrated that a different technique, called differential privacy, prevents predicate singling out attacks by precisely controlling randomization to hide the presence or absence of any specific individual in a dataset.

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German Industrial Firms to Build Private 5G Networks
The Wall Street Journal
Catherine Stupp
April 6, 2020

Automakers BMW and Volkswagen, chemicals company BASF, airline Deutsche Lufthansa, and other German industrial firms intend to build their own private 5G networks, now that the German Federal Network Agency has started accepting applications for that portion of the radio spectrum. The regulator said 33 companies have to date purchased 5G licenses. Private 5G networks are particularly useful for industrial applications like operating robots and driverless vehicles within factories, which experts say require fast, reliable connections that perform tasks in real time. The firms also claim the private networks will fortify cybersecurity, as they will be able to configure the networks to suit their needs, use customized security features like encryption, and avoid sharing bandwidth with other companies.

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Crypto-Mining Botnet Has Been Hijacking MSSQL Servers for Almost Two Years
Catalin Cimpanu
April 1, 2020

Cybersecurity firm Guardicore said a malware botnet has been launching brute-force attacks against Microsoft SQL (MSSQL) databases to hijack administrative accounts and install cryptocurrency mining scripts on the underlying operating system for nearly two years. A report by Guardicore estimated the Vollgar botnet infects approximately 3,000 new MSSQL databases daily. Guardicore said more than 120 mainly Chinese Internet Protocol addresses are used to launch attacks that attempt to guess the passwords of MSSQL servers. More than 60% of all hijacked MSSQL servers remain infected with the malware for no more than two days, but Guardicore's Ophir Harpaz said nearly 20% of all MSSQL systems remain infected for more than a week. Said Harpaz, "Our experience shows that this type of campaign makes the most immediate attack vector for threat actors to make a profit."

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A man using a COBOL computer in the 1960s New Jersey Needs Volunteers Who Know COBOL, a 60-Year-Old Programming Language
Kif Leswing
April 6, 2020

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has called for volunteers skilled in the 61-year-old COBOL programming language, as many state systems use older mainframe computers are seeing record demand for services while the coronavirus pandemic disrupts the economy. For example, New Jersey's information technology department is using four-decade-old mainframes to process unprecedented numbers of unemployment applications. Said Murphy, "Literally, we have systems that are 40-years-plus old, and there'll be lots of postmortems. And one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?" Said New Jersey CIO Beth Noveck, “We are using a lot of volunteer help already and we are going to stand up a site this week to allow us to take volunteers of a wide variety.”

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Fraunhofer HHI Enables Smooth Collaboration Between Humans, Robots
Fraunhofer HHI
Gesine Rodenkirchen
April 2, 2020

Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications Heinrich Hertz Institute (Fraunhofer HHI) and Volkswagen AG have demonstrated the advantages human-robot collaboration (HRC) can bring to the inspection of welding seams in the automotive industry. Fraunhofer HHI researchers developed middleware that coordinates the various sensors that serve to capture the overall auto manufacturing work environment. The software uses an employee's position and gestures to calculate the required movement of a robotic arm. Said Fraunhofer HHI’s Paul Chojecki, "Our new perceptual interface is able to process a user's individual gestures and voice commands. This means the system can be quickly customized to a workstation's specific requirements."

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Two women using a 3D X-ray microscope to examine and analyze created mineral samples Purdue Researchers 3D-Print Minerals in Order to Better Predict Fracture Formation
Purdue University News
April 7, 2020

Purdue University and Sandia National Laboratories researchers are three-dimensionally (3D) printing minerals, in order to learn to better predict how and where fractures form in materials. The team 3D-prints synthetic gypsum samples by laying down a layer of bassanite powder (a calcium sulfate mineral), spraying a binding agent across it, then depositing another layer of bassanite atop it; the end result is a gypsum sample that has layers bound together by gypsum crystal. After printing samples with various mineral-fabric orientations to ascertain whether orientation had any impact on fracture formation when exposed to tension, Purdue's Liyang Jiang was able to identify each sample from the fracture's physical properties, and vice-versa. Predicting and understanding fractures has ramifications for enhancing the structural integrity of large 3D-printed components.

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To Tune Up Your Quantum Computer, Better Call an AI Mechanic
Chase Boutin
March 31, 2020

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a method for teaching an artificial intelligence (AI) program to make an interconnected set of adjustments to tiny quantum dots, a significant aspect of creating properly functioning qubits. The researchers created a simulator to generate thousands of images of quantum dot measurements that could then be fed to the AI as a training exercise. Said NIST mathematician Justyna Zwolak, "We simulate the qubit setup we want and run it overnight, and in the morning we have all the data we need to train the AI to tune the system automatically." The team used a setup of two quantum dots, and verified that within certain constraints the trained AI could auto-tune the system to the desired setup.

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Predicting In-Flight Air Density for More Accurate Landing
University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering
April 1, 2020

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have developed an algorithm that can provide real-time data to help in steering of an aircraft, especially during the entry, descent, and landing stage. The algorithm can run in-flight onboard the aircraft and estimate what the atmosphere is like outside. The algorithm learns about real-time air density by collecting data from accelerometers and gyroscopes, and combines it with prior knowledge about maximal rate of acceleration to obtain a time-varying estimate of air density. Said Delft researcher Hamza El-Kebir, "This is a complete game changer, because now you can use prior knowledge about the vehicle’s motion to estimate the air density, inform your decisions in flight, and make minor alterations in your course."

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'Smart Toilet' Monitors for Signs of Disease
Stanford Medicine News Center
Hanae Armitage
April 6, 2020

An international pilot study conducted by Stanford University researchers demonstrated the utility of a smart toilet equipped with technology for detecting a range of disease markers in stool and urine. The equipment utilizes motion sensing to deploy tests that evaluate the health of any samples, with urine assessed by physical and molecular analysis and stools graded according to physical characteristics. Excretions are captured on video and processed by algorithms that can differentiate normal urodynamics and stool consistencies from unhealthy ones. The toilet automatically transmits data extracted from any sample to a secure, cloud-based system, which Stanford's Sanjiv Gambhir believes can be integrated into any healthcare provider's record-keeping system.

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A Digital Court for a Digital Age
University of Tokyo
April 6, 2020

Hitoshi Matsushima from the University of Tokyo in Japan and Shunya Noda from the University of British Columbia in Canada have created a mechanism that uses blockchain to settle legal disputes. This so-called digital court would enable enforcement of contracts wherever a traditional legal court would settle legal disputes. The blockchain is only invoked to maintain records of the parties' involvement with the agreement in question. This is important because even though ordinary smart contracts can dispense with an expensive third party to adjudicate a dispute, they still require some potentially costly interactions with the blockchain system. Said Matsushima, "We have found a way to satisfy agreements without traditional legal enforcement or the long-term reciprocal relationships which might ordinarily keep the players honest. A digital court could be built on current blockchain platforms such as Ethereum, and it could happen right now.”

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Former ACM president and current Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vinton G. Cerf. Your Internet Is Working. Thank These Cold War-Era Pioneers Who Designed It to Handle Almost Anything
The Washington Post
Craig Timberg
April 6, 2020

The Internet is accommodating surges and sudden shifts in online traffic due to the current global crisis without collapsing, due in part to the original designers' vision of a global, interoperable network controlled by no central authority. Designers like Vinton G. Cerf, former president of ACM and a 2004 ACM A.M. Turing Award recipient, aimed to create a system resilient enough to remain operable after a nuclear attack by continuously calculating and recalculating the best data-transmission routes. Also critical to the Internet's adaptability is packet switching, in which communications are fragmented into chunks that continuously shuttle back and forth over shared lines, without pause. “You're seeing a success story right now,” said David D. Clark, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist who worked on early Internet protocols. “If we didn't have the Internet, we'd be in an incredibly different place right now."

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OpenWRT Code-Execution Bug Puts Millions of Devices at Risk
Ars Technica
Dan Goodin
March 31, 2020

Guido Vranken at the ForAllSecure security firm discovered that the open source OpenWRT operating system for powering embedded systems has been vulnerable to remote code-execution attacks for three years, because updates are delivered over an unencrypted channel and digital signature verifications are easy to circumvent. This enables attackers to send malicious updates that vulnerable devices will automatically install. OpenWRT operates on home routers, smartphones, and portable and desktop PCs, which means millions of devices are at risk from the bug. In January, OpenWRT maintainers released an update requiring new installations to be "set out from a well-formed list that would not sidestep the hash verification." Vranken described the mitigation as a partial stopgap measure, because hackers could replace the legitimate update with an older package list signed by the maintainers, and subsequently use the same exploits they would use on devices that have not received the true update.

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2020 Virginia Tech Master of Information Technology
2020 ACM Transactions on Internet of Things (TIOT)

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