Computing Applications News track

News Track

  1. E-Voting Dissected
  2. Paper Prevails
  3. Innovation Idol
  4. Powdery ID
  5. Bachelor's Decline
  6. Lost (and Found) in Space
  7. Author

Princeton professor Andrew Appel recently purchased five Sequoia e-voting machines from a government auction site for $82; now he and his students are dissecting the machines to determine just how tamper-proof they really are. Wired reports the team is reverse engineering the software embedded in the machines’ ROM chips to check for security holes. Appel noted that the ease with which he and his students opened the machines demonstrates their vulnerability to unauthorized modification. The machines were bought from election officials in Buncombe County, NC, via The county, which bought the machines in 1997 for $5,200 each, sold 144 in lots of varying amounts. The purchase required Appel to provide name, address, phone number, and email address; no non-disclosure agreement with Sequoia was signed. Appel says the ROM chips inside are in sockets, not soldered to the board, and can be replaced in 10 minutes by opening a door on the back of the machines and unscrewing a metal cover. With new chips, the machines could be reprogrammed to misreport votes. Although he opened the machines with a key (included in the purchase), Appel said one student picked the lock in seven seconds. Despite the ease of entry, Appel said the Sequoia machines so far seem more secure than a Diebold voting machine Princeton colleague Edward Felten and others examined last year.

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Paper Prevails

Despite the speedier and expansive nature of online scientific publishing, researchers remain reluctant to publish their own work in open access outlets. A new study by University of Arkansas professors Rolf Wigand and Thomas Hess, along with Florian Mann and Benedikt von Walter of Munich’s Institute for IS and New Media, shows that academics are extremely positive about new media opportunities that provide open access to scientific findings once available only in costly journals but fear nontraditional publication will hurt their chances of promotion and tenure. Moreover, they are concerned about how long their research will remain available online. Findings indicate 60% of those questioned believe online publication influences promotion; 51% contend open access publishing is not well known enough as a medium to publish their own work that way. Although 80% said they had made use of open-access literature, only 34% published their work online. In fact, 65% of IS researchers surveyed accessed online literature, but only 31% published their own research online. In the medical sciences, those numbers were 62% and 23%, respectively. "This suggests a gap between the high positive attitude toward open access publication and low level of use, as well as future intention to use open access media," says Wigand. The findings are available at

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Innovation Idol

Venture capital firms are considering contests that offer competing engineers and entrepreneurs multimillion-dollar prizes for creating innovative technologies in various industries, reports the New York Times. The concept was introduced at a Googleplex fund-raiser last March, where technology investors and tech-savvy celebrities looked to raise about $50 million to operate the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit group that had previously awarded $10 million to designers of private spacecraft. While the foundation plans to use the money to develop prizes in fields like medicine, poverty reduction, and fuel-efficient cars, the next stage of prize giving will also include partnerships with venture capitalists who can use the prizes to spur entrepreneurs to innovate. "Prizes can help create markets," said X Prize Foundation President Tom Vander Ark. "It’s an interesting twist on venture. Instead of betting on a company, they bet on a sector." Some investors and academics argue that venture capitalists may be less interested in ground-breaking science than in market-ready technologies. Vander Ark contends the awards will create such buzz as to motivate a greater number of engineers and entrepreneurs to participate, conceding the concept is a bit like American Idol, without the singing.

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Powdery ID

RFID chips no bigger than specks of dust were recently demonstrated by Hitachi Ltd., Toyko, though the electronics maker has no immediate plans to start commercial production. Measuring just 0.002 inches by 0.002 inches, the still- unnamed chip is thin enough to be embedded in a piece of paper. This chip is 60 times smaller than its predecessor—the Mu-chip—which is approximately the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Unlike the Mu-chip, however, the new chip needs an external antenna; the smallest of which is about 0.16 inches—a relative giant next to the powderish chip itself. Although the potential for abusive use of this kind of potential invisible tracking is obvious, a Hitachi spokesperson said the chip is so new, and so miniature, the company is still studying its possible uses.

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Bachelor’s Decline

U.S. colleges and universities have become complacent about their declining standing in global higher education, even in the face of other countries surpassing the U.S. in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by their citizens. Speaking at a recent conference on law and higher education, Dewayne Matthews, senior research director at the Lumina Foundation for Education, said the U.S. ranks first among the largest democracies in bachelor’s degrees by those ages 55–64 (35%), but drops to eighth in the rankings of bachelor’s degrees by those ages 25–34 (37%). The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Matthews compared the U.S. with 29 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and found Canada (53%) and Japan (52%) led the list of bachelor’s degrees ages 25–34; with South Korea, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Belgium also ranking higher than the U.S. Moreover, Matthews feels the downward trend in the U.S. will continue.

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Lost (and Found) in Space

SETI@home, the UC Berkeley project that taps millions of volunteers’ computers when they go into screen-saver mode to crunch data that may spot signals in the radio noise from space, may not have found signs of alien life forms yet, but it did track down one stolen laptop. Volunteer James Melin, a programmer for a Minnesota government agency, runs SETI@home on his seven home computers, including a laptop, which was stolen from their home on New Year’s Day. The Associated Press reports that Melin, knowing that Berkeley servers periodically record the IP addresses of remote computers and file them in a database that people running SETI software can view, monitored the SETI@home database to see if the stolen laptop was "talking" to the UC servers. Indeed, the laptop checked in three times within a week. Melin sent the IP addresses to the Minneapolis Police Department, and the real-world address of the stolen laptop was ultimately uncovered. Within days the officers seized the computer and returned it. No arrests have been made as yet. The thieves did not appear to tamper with or destroy any of the laptop’s contents; however, they did add about 20 tracks of rap music with unintelligible lyrics. Said Melin of the rap quality: "It made Ludacris sound like Pavarotti."

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