Welcome to the March 25, 2022, edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A cellphone user walks by a reflecting pool in Paris. European Lawmakers Reach Deal on Digital-Competition Law
The Wall Street Journal
Kim Mackrael; Sam Schechner
March 24, 2022

European lawmakers have agreed on the central precepts of a sweeping new digital-competition law that is slated to be enacted next year. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) would impose mandates and bans on digital companies the EU designates as gatekeepers, with fines potentially running into the tens of billions of dollars for noncompliance. It is aimed broadly at limiting the ability of the biggest tech companies to take advantage of their size in digital markets, including the app ecosystem, online shopping, and online advertising. “This will be the first comprehensive attempt at making digital markets more competitive,” said Zach Meyers of the Centre for European Reform think tank. “And when you look at what the U.K. and the U.S. and other countries are doing, even if they’re not replicating the DMA, they’re certainly inspired and influenced by it."

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Teen Suspected of Being Lapsus$ Mastermind
William Turton; Jordan Robertson
March 23, 2022

Four cybersecurity researchers have traced a series of high-profile attacks against technology companies to a U.K. teenager, whom they think is the architect of the Lapsus$ ransomware group. The researchers tapped forensic evidence from the attacks, in addition to public information, to link this individual to Lapsus$; they also suspect an adolescent in Brazil of being a member of the group. Lapsus$ has publicly mocked targets like Microsoft and Nvidia, leaking their source code and internal documents. Microsoft blogged that the group has engaged in a "large-scale social engineering and extortion campaign against multiple organizations." One research participant said the U.K. teen is so skilled and fast at hacking that researchers initially mistook the activity they were observing as automated.

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A gauge showing high risk. App Gauges Risk of COVID-19 Exposure in Public Places
IEEE Spectrum
Kathy Pretz
March 22, 2022

The University of Houston's Albert Cheng is testing a smartphone application to help people avoid COVID-19 exposure in public places, by tapping publicly available databases that detail crowding situations. The cloud-based app employs Google Maps' popular-times option, which displays how busy a place tends to be at specific times, in combination with data from public health agencies on COVID-19 infection rates, reported vaccination numbers, and surveys of people's willingness to mask, all sorted by ZIP code. "All these parameters are input into an algorithm that weighs the information to determine the risk for infection at different stores near the user," Cheng said. "The more people who are vaccinated, the lower the risk." Cheng said he developed the app, currently being tested in Houston and Seattle, to provide individuals up-to-date information at a moment's notice.

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GIF inventor Steve Wilhite at the Webby Awards ceremony in 2013. Creator of the GIF Dies
Halisia Hubbard
March 23, 2022

Steve Wilhite, creator of the GIF file format, died March 14 of complications from COVID, his wife Kathaleen confirmed. Wilhite created the compressed Graphics Interchange Format in 1987 while working at the CompuServe online service; it enabled slow modem connections to transfer images more efficiently. Said Jason Reed at the Daily Dot media company, "Without the .gif, the Internet as we know it would be a different place. It's a tight medium that you can learn a lot about storytelling within, especially tuned for the attention span of the Internet."

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Corrupted Open Source Software Enters Russian Battlefield
Steven Vaughan-Nichols
March 21, 2022

JavaScript programmer Brandon Nozaki Miller's innocent attempt to protest Russia's invasion of Ukraine by crafting the peacenotwar open-source npm source-code package has been used to delete the file systems of Russian or Belorussian computers. Miller inserted code in the package to delete the hard drive, then added the module as a dependency to the node-ipc mode. Miller encoded his code revisions in base-64 to thwart detection via code reading. Developer security company Snyk has classified the software as malicious. Such "protestware" creates a dangerous precedent; as one GitHub programmer wrote, "What's going to happen with this is that security teams in Western corporations that have absolutely nothing to do with Russia or politics are going to start seeing free and open source software as an avenue for supply chain attacks (which this totally is) and simply start banning free and open source software—all free and open source software—within their companies."

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A DNA strand and a hand holding a tablet computer. Revamped Design Could Take Powerful Biological Computers from Test Tube to Cell
March 23, 2022

Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have revamped biological computers to potentially persist within cells by swapping their DNA-based circuits for RNA. Although RNA also is vulnerable to rapid degradation, it could be a renewable resource under the appropriate conditions. The researchers wrote DNA sequences so half the strands could bind flush with the other half, enabling the sequences to fold on themselves in order to ensure a locked state; they also realized a double-stranded gate design by coding in an RNA segment called a ribozyme near the gate's folding point. Experimental results indicated the RNA circuits have DNA circuit-comparable reliability and versatility, while living cells may be able to generate the RNA circuits continuously. "We did find the RNA circuits were very predictable and programmable, much more so than I thought they would be, actually," said NIST's Samuel Schaffter.

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Mary Jean Amon, an assistant professor in the School of Modeling, Simulation, and Training at the University of Central Florida. Study Finds Parents' Social Media Use Associated with Parenting Style
University of Central Florida
Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala
March 23, 2022

Researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Indiana University Bloomington surveyed 493 parents who use social media frequently and have children under 10, and found a link between the parents’ social media use and their parenting styles. They found parents who share photos of their children regularly have more permissive, confident parenting styles. The researchers indicated that some parents may underestimate the risks of sharing children's photos online and engaging children with social media at early ages because they do not differentiate strongly between parental sharing and general photo sharing on social media. UCF's Jean Amon said, "There are broader questions about children's privacy in social media, where a central question remains as to how much autonomy and control children, including children of different ages, should have over their photos and information online."

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Toronto, the Quietly Booming Tech Town
The New York Times
Cade Metz
March 21, 2022

Real estate firm CBRE identified Toronto as the third-largest technology hub in North America, trailing only New York and Silicon Valley in terms of numbers of tech workers. Twitter's Tristan Jung called Toronto "a place to make a long-term bet—to build connections with the cluster of schools in the area and create a new pipeline for hiring." Toronto is home to both the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo, and while their engineering and computer science graduates once tended to migrate to the U.S., more are staying in Canada these days. Research firm Tracxn reports $5.4 billion in investments were pumped into Toronto startups in 2021 and 2022, far less than the $132 billion of investments seen in Silicon Valley over the same period. However, Index Ventures' Mike Volpi said, "The money will follow the talent."

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Ductal carcincoma in situ (DCIS) tissue with breast cancer cell. Computational Approach Enables Spatial Mapping of Single-Cell Data Within Tissues
University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
March 21, 2022

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine have developed a computational strategy that blends data from parallel gene-expression profiling techniques into spatial maps of single-cell data within tissue. The CellTrek tool combines data from single-cell RNA sequencing with that of spatial transcriptomics assays to find individual cell types in a tissue. The researchers showed that CellTrek yielded more accurate, detailed spatial resolution than other methods, and could differentiate fine gene expression distinctions within the same cell type to obtain data on their heterogeneity within a sample. The tool's analysis of ductal carcinoma in situ breast cancer samples indicated different subgroups of tumor cells were evolving in novel patterns within specific areas.

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A quantum circuit. Making Quantum Circuits More Robust
MIT News
Adam Zewe
March 21, 2022

A team led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a framework to make quantum circuits more resilient to noise. Called Quantum NAS (Noise Adaptive Search), the framework can determine the most robust quantum circuit for a certain computing task and produce a mapping pattern tailored to the qubits of the targeted quantum device. MIT’s Song Han said, “Using this method, we can obtain many different circuits and mapping strategies at once with no need for many times of training.” The process involved designing a “SuperCircuit” with all possible parameterized quantum gates in the design space, training the SuperCircuit once, and then using it to identify circuit architectures that meet a targeted objective. The quantum circuits identified by the algorithm as the best were tested on real quantum devices; the researchers determined they outperformed quantum circuits produced using other methods.

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Restricted Internet Access Could Be Key to Academic Gains
University of Toronto Rotman School of Management (Canada)
March 23, 2022

Researchers at Canada's University of Toronto, Laval University, and the U.K.'s Queen Mary University of London found that providing Internet access, with the right controls, can help students achieve academic gains, and can even substitute for textbooks in schools with scarce resources. The study involved 300 students at four government-run boarding schools in Malawi in 2017 and 2018, prior to widespread Internet adoption in the country. Students were given access to a "digital library" via smartphones with online access restricted to Wikipedia. While the students spent an average of one hour 20 minutes per week online (much of their online activity was not related to school), they demonstrated significant improvements in English and biology, according to the study. Toronto's Laura Derksen said, "It's not that expensive to buy a set of smartphones. The schools have staff who can manage them. It's a low-cost, high-benefit intervention for poor countries."

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Computer Algorithm Predicts Coronary Artery Disease-related Events Based on Voice Recordings
News-Medical Life Sciences
Emily Henderson
March 24, 2022

Mayo Clinic researchers found that an artificial intelligence (AI)-based computer algorithm was able to accurately forecast coronary artery disease (CAD)-related events based on voice recordings alone. The researchers enlisted 108 patients referred for a coronary angiogram, who recorded three 30-second voice samples using the Vocalis Health smartphone application. The recordings were of a prepared text, spontaneous narratives about positive experiences, and narratives about negative experiences, respectively. The AI then evaluated the voice samples, and patients with a high voice biomarker score were found to be 2.6 times more likely to experience major CAD events, and three times more likely to exhibit plaque buildup in medical tests, than low-scoring patients. Scientists have not determined why certain voice features seem to signify CAD; Mayo Clinic's Jaskanwal Deep Singh Sara said the autonomic nervous system may be a factor.

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