Thursday, August 28, 2014

Scientists find secret of reversing bad memories

Thursday 28 August 2014

Scientists find secret of reversing bad memories

Bad memories could be reversed after scientists discovered the part of the brain which links emotions to past events

Scientists at MIT have discovered which part of the brain controls bad memories and how to reverse them

By  Sarah Knapton, Science Correspondent

6:00PM BST 27 Aug 2014

Bad memories of past trauma can leave people emotionally scarred for life.

But now neuroscientists believe they can erase feelings of fear or anxiety attached to stressful events, in a breakthrough which could help treat depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers at MIT, US, have discovered which brain circuits attach emotions to memories, and crucially, how to reverse the link.

They managed to ‘switch off’ feelings of fear in mice which had been conditioned to feel anxious. It is likely the same technique could be used in humans.

“In our day to day lives we encounter a variety of events and episodes that give positive or negative impact to our emotions,” said Susuma Tonegawa, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at the Riken-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics.

“If you are mugged late at night in a dark alley you are terrified and have a strong fear memory and never want to go back to that alley.

“On the other hand if you have a great vacation, say on a Caribbean island, you also remember it for your lifetime and repeatedly recall that memory to enjoy the experience.

“So emotions are intimately associated with memory of past events. And yet the emotional value of the memory is malleable. Recalling a memory is not like playing a tape recorder. Rather it is like a creative process.

“The circuits seem to be very similar between human and mice when it comes to memory formations and the emotions of memories. So a similar technology could be available for humans.”

Memories are made of many elements, which are stored in different parts of the brain. The context of a memory, such as the location and time that the event took place, is stored in cells in the hippocampus, while emotions linked to that memory are found in the amygdala.

The team studied which brain cells were active when mice were experiencing a pleasant experience – a male mouse socialising with a female mouse – or a negative experience – a mild electrical shock.

They then showed that by stimulating the neurons associated with the opposite emotion they could reverse the feeling attached to the memory. Mice became more relaxed in situations where they had previously been anxious and more fearful where they had previously been content.

“We found that we can dictate the overall emotion and the direction of the memory.” added Prof Tonegawa, “We could switch the mouse’s memory from positive to negative and negative to positive.”

The brain cells are triggered by a technique called optogentics which uses pulses of blue light to trigger the neurons into firing.

Previous studies have shown that memories can change over time as recollections become more vague or events that never happened are remembered. Behavioural therapists often take patients back to a traumatic event and ‘rewire’ their

But this is the first time that scientists have shown which brain circuits are responsible for positive and negative emotions, and reversed them.

Professor Richard Morris at the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems at the University of Edinburgh said: “We often believe that our memories are accurate, but in fact they are malleable.

“The memory of a romantic first date with a partner may take on a different mood when the relationship falters. That of a favourite family beach in summer may be destroyed after witnessing a swimming tragedy

“Molecular engineering is shedding light on our understanding of the underlying physiological networks of memory.”

The researchers are hopeful it could lead to a cure for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder without the need for medication.

“It’s not something we can do next week, but we are now developing a variety of methods to try to target the stimulation of the human brain cells,” added Prof Tonegawa.

“Instead of going inside the brain you stimulate from the surface of the brain which would be less invasive.

“I want to make it clear that we have not used this technology in order to alter normal healthy people’s mind or cognition. That we should not do. If there is any application in human it would be for pathological conditions.”

The research was published in the journal Nature.

15 simple, secret Windows tips and tricks designed to save you time

15 simple, secret Windows tips and tricks designed to save you time

By Brad Chacos, PCWorld | Aug 27, 2014 4:13 AM PT

These small, yet obscure Windows tips and tricks can make a big difference in your workflow—and save you tons of time in the process.

Hidden powers and secret timesavers

Time is money, or so the saying goes. And even if you're plunked down in front of your PC for fun or a hobby project, every unnecessary click and hassle you bump into burns away precious seconds of your life.

Nobody wants to waste time endlessly navigating menus. Fear not! Dr. PCWorld has the cure. Take these 15 secret Windows tricks to streamline your computing experience and eradicate little irritations that trip you up throughout the day. You won't need to call me in the morning.

Launch taskbar programs with your keyboard
Many of us—especially users of the Start Menu-less Windows 8—use the Windows taskbar as a quick launch bar, populating it with our day-to-day programs. Opening those programs is as simple as clicking them, but there's actually a faster way to launch software on your taskbar: Simple keyboard combinations.

Every program to the right of the Start button is assigned its own numerical shortcut, with the first program being "1," the second being "2," and so on, all the way to the 10th taskbar shortcut, which gets "0." Pressing the Windows key, plus the number of the program you want to open, launches it. For example, in the image at left, pressing Win + 3 launches the Chrome browser.

Quickly launch a new instance of a program

Those taskbar icons can also be used to quickly launch a second (or third, or fourth, or…) instance of a program—a fresh browser window alongside an already populated one, for instance, or another Windows Explorer window.

Doing so is easy: Just hold down the Shift button, then open the program as you normally would, either via a left click of the mouse or the aforementioned quick-launch keyboard trick. Boom! A new, clean version of the software appears alongside the one you already have open.

Copy a file path to the Clipboard

Why would you ever want to copy a file path to the Windows Clipboard? Well, you may just want to tell someone how to browse to a common location for a given application. I, however, use it to mark the spot of a local file I've found using Windows Explorer, so it'll be handy later—to upload photos to Facebook or document attachments to Outlook emails, for instance.

To copy a file path to your Clipboard, hold down the Shift key, right-click the file or folder you want, then select the newly revealed "Copy as Path" option. Now you can paste the info wherever you'd like—including the "File name" portion of Browse dialog boxes, with no extra browsing required.

More secret right-click options

Secret right-click options revealed by the Shift key don't end with file paths, though.

The basic Send to tool that appears as an option when you right-click on a file or folder is handy enough indeed, allowing you to move the item quickly to a handful of locations on your PC, add it to a .zip archive, or send it off in an email or fax.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg! Holding down the Shift key as you right-click a file or folder will add an absolute ton of new folder locations to the basic Send to menu.

Tweaking the Send To menu

What's that, you say? None of the stock Send to options offer the ability to shuffle your files to the locations you commonly use? Force the issue!

First, create shortcuts to the folder locations you're like to add to the Send To menu by right-clicking them, then selecting Send to > Desktop (create shortcut). Once that's done, open Windows Explorer, then type shell:sendto in the location bar at the top, followed by Enter. You'll be brought to the location that holds your Send To options; just drag and drop in the shortcuts to the folders you want to add to the tool.

Erase the past

When you're shuffling files around willy-nilly, you're bound to accidentally drop one in the wrong folder—or almost more irritating, errantly make copies of a slew of files rather than simply dragging them to a new location. Arrrrrrrrg.

Rather than trying to track that missing file down or manually delete the legion of copies, whip out the universal Get Out of Jail Free card that, somewhat surprisingly, also works within Windows proper: Crtl + Z. The keyboard shortcut undoes your last action, restoring order when chaos suddenly appears. (Crtl + C and Crtl + V for copying and pasting, respectively, also work properly within Windows.)

Add mouse-friendly checkboxes to icons

For every geek who swears by keyboard shortcuts, there are a dozen casual users who rely on their mice. Activating icon checkboxes lets you select multiple files to manage simultaneously, without having to hold down the Ctrl button as you click each one.

…unless you add checkboxes to Windows icons, that is. In Windows 7, type Folder options into the Start Menu's search bar. Next, open the "View" tab in the window that appears and ensure the "Use check boxes to select items" checkbox is checked. In Windows 8, just open Windows Explorer, open the "View" tab, and check the "Item check boxes" box in the Show/Hide pane.

Aero Snap desktop windows

One of the most appealing aspects of Windows 8's touch-friendly side is its ability to "Snap" multiple open apps side-by-side. The feature comes in very handy on the desktop as well if you need to start multitasking. Simply click an open window and drag it to the left or right edge of the screen to automatically resize it to fill that half of the desktop. Dragging a window to the top edge expands it to full screen.

If you're more into keyboard commands, Windows key + left arrow, Windows key + right arrow, and Windows key + up arrow snaps the selected window in the same manner.

Windows' powerful, rarely used search tools

Most people search Windows using the Start menu or Windows 8's "start typing to search" Start screen. But for more granular results, try the search box in the upper-right corner of Windows Explorer.

The advanced search tools let you add fancy filters, from date and file type to Boolean operands. This Microsoft page offers a full list of such commands in Windows 7. In Windows 8, you'll find similar functionality in the Search Tools section of the File Explorer's Ribbon UI.

You can create a shortcut to a custom search by simply dragging the magnifying-glass icon in the File Explorer location bar to the desired location. Clicking it will always give you up-to-date results.

Pin common items to Jump Lists

You can also pin the custom search shortcut to the File Explorer Jump List, causing it to appear when you right-click File Explorer's taskbar icon. Which brings up another point: Jump Lists rock.

Right-clicking a taskbar icon brings up that's program's Jump List—quick links to the most recent files you've opened with that program. Got a file or template you open often? Pin it to the Jump List by dragging it onto the program's taskbar icon, or by clicking the pin icon to the right of the file name in the Jump List itself. Jump Lists can skirt around Windows' frustrating refusal to pin individual folders to the taskbar, pinning folders to the Jump List instead.

Increase the number of items in Jump Lists

If you come to lean heavily on Jump Lists (as yours truly does), there may eventually come a time when you have so many files pinned to programs that the default 10-item limit on Jump Lists just won't cut it. Fortunately, it's easy to alter the number of files displayed by Jump Lists.

Right-click on the taskbar, select Properties, then open the Jump List tab in the dialog box that appears. Here, you'll find some basic tools that let you fiddle with how Jump Lists behave—including the number of items you want displayed when you open a Jump List. Set it to the number you desire (more than 15 to 20 gets unwieldy) and click OK to save your changes.

Add new folders to File Explorer's Favorites

Another way to quickly open favored folders is, well, by adding them to the Favorites section at the top of File Explorer. The process for doing so isn't exactly obvious, however.

Drag the folder itself onto the Favorites icon in File Explorer's left-hand pane, or navigate to the chosen folder directly, then right-click the Favorites icon and select Add current location to Favorites.

Dropping common folders into Favorites is especially handy when it comes time to save files. If you wind up filling your Favorites with too much stuff, just right-click the icon in File Explorer and select Restore Favorites links to wipe the slate clean and bring back the default folders.

DIY keyboard shortcuts

Windows has a ton of keyboard shortcuts baked right in, but you can roll your own to open the software of your choice lickety-split—no mouse-clicking or launcher-hunting required.

Right-click the program's launch icon and select Properties. Open the Shortcut tab, then click in the "Shortcut key" field and press the key you want to use to launch the program. Windows will assign Ctrl + Alt + as a keyboard shortcut to open the program. It's a seriously useful trick, especially if you don't want to stuff your taskbar full of quick-launch program icons. Don't forget to click OK when you're done to save the shortcut.

Browse all of the web or all of your PC from your taskbar

If your taskbar isn't already overflowing with software icons and their associated Jump Lists, you can add even more functionality with toolbars.

Right-click on your taskbar once again, select Properties, then open the Toolbars tab. A list of Windows' available toolbars appears/ Simply check the box next to ones you want to add to your taskbar and click OK. I like the Address and Desktop toolbars. Address plops a URL bar in your taskbar, which you can use to browse directly to any website in your default browser. Desktop adds a drop-down (drop-up?) menu you can use to browse to any folder or file on your PC. Sweet!

Old-school task switcher

Okay, okay, this won't cure any headaches, but it's just plain cool. By this point, most people know the age-old Alt + Tab keyboard command to quickly switch between open programs (and the desktop). But did you know the classic Windows XP-style task switcher is still hidden within even the latest versions of Windows?

Just hold one Alt button, press and release the other Alt button (while still holding the first one), then start pressing Tab to rotate through software like it's 2001.

Deeper, darker, more powerful secrets

These tips are just the tip of the iceberg. If you truly want to squeeze Windows for all its worth, check out PCWorld's guide to 17 obscure Windows tools and tricks too powerful to overlook. Windows is so deep and flexible that many of us never touch its more potent tools—and beneath Internet Explorer and the Start button hides a universe of features that are positively brimming with potential.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technology that can track movements of almost anyone with cellphone...

For sale: Systems that can secretly track where cellphone users go around the globe

By Craig Timberg August 24 at 7:02 PM 

Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent.

The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.

The world’s most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the United States — with relative ease and precision.

Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is currently using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.

It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide.

“Any tin-pot dictator with enough money to buy the system could spy on people anywhere in the world,” said Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, a London-based activist group that warns about the abuse of surveillance technology. “This is a huge problem.”

Security experts say hackers, sophisticated criminal gangs and nations under sanctions also could use this tracking technology, which operates in a legal gray area. It is illegal in many countries to track people without their consent or a court order, but there is no clear international legal standard for secretly tracking people in other countries, nor is there a global entity with the authority to police potential abuses.

In response to questions from The Washington Post this month, the Federal Communications Commission said it would investigate possible misuse of tracking technology that collects location data from carrier databases. The United States restricts the export of some surveillance technology, but with multiple suppliers based overseas, there are few practical limits on the sale or use of these systems internationally.

“If this is technically possible, why couldn’t anybody do this anywhere?” said Jon Peha, a former White House scientific adviser and chief technologist for the FCC who is now an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was one of several telecommunications experts who reviewed the marketing documents at The Post’s request.

“I’m worried about foreign governments, and I’m even more worried about non-governments,” Peha said. “Which is not to say I’d be happy about the NSA using this method to collect location data. But better them than the Iranians.”

‘Locate. Track. Manipulate.’

Location tracking is an increasingly common part of modern life. Apps that help you navigate through a city or find the nearest coffee shop need to know your location. Many people keep tabs on their teenage children — or their spouses — through tracking apps on smartphones. But these forms of tracking require consent; mobile devices typically allow these location features to be blocked if users desire.

Tracking systems built for intelligence services or police, however, are inherently stealthy and difficult — if not impossible — to block. Private surveillance vendors offer government agencies several such technologies, including systems that collect cellular signals from nearby phones and others that use malicious software to trick phones into revealing their locations.

Governments also have long had the ability to compel carriers to provide tracking data on their customers, especially within their own countries. The National Security Agency, meanwhile, taps into telecommunication-system cables to collect cellphone location data on a mass, global scale.

But tracking systems that access carrier location databases are unusual in their ability to allow virtually any government to track people across borders, with any type of cellular phone, across a wide range of carriers — without the carriers even knowing. These systems also can be used in tandem with other technologies that, when the general location of a person is already known, can intercept calls and Internet traffic, activate microphones, and access contact lists, photos and other documents.

Companies that make and sell surveillance technology seek to limit public information about their systems’ capabilities and client lists, typically marketing their technology directly to law enforcement and intelligence services through international conferences that are closed to journalists and other members of the public.

Yet marketing documents obtained by The Washington Post show that companies are offering powerful systems that are designed to evade detection while plotting movements of surveillance targets on computerized maps. The documents claim system success rates of more than 70 percent.

A 24-page marketing brochure for SkyLock, a cellular tracking system sold by Verint, a maker of analytics systems based in Melville, N.Y., carries the subtitle “Locate. Track. Manipulate.” The document, dated January 2013 and labeled “Commercially Confidential,” says the system offers government agencies “a cost-effective, new approach to obtaining global location information concerning known targets.”

The brochure includes screen shots of maps depicting location tracking in what appears to be Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Congo, the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe and several other countries. Verint says on its Web site that it is “a global leader in Actionable Intelligence solutions for customer engagement optimization, security intelligence, and fraud, risk and compliance,” with clients in “more than 10,000 organizations in over 180 countries.”

(Privacy International has collected several marketing brochures on cellular surveillance systems, including one that refers briefly to SkyLock, and posted them on its Web site. The 24-page SkyLock brochure and other material was independently provided to The Post by people concerned that such systems are being abused.)

Verint, which also has substantial operations in Israel, declined to comment for this story. It says in the marketing brochure that it does not use SkyLock against U.S. or Israeli phones, which could violate national laws. But several similar systems, marketed in recent years by companies based in Switzerland, Ukraine and elsewhere, likely are free of such limitations.

At The Post’s request, telecommunications security researcher Tobias Engel used the techniques described by the marketing documents to determine the location of a Post employee who used an AT&T phone and consented to the tracking. Based only on her phone number, Engel found the Post employee’s location, in downtown Washington, to within a city block — a typical level of precision when such systems are used in urban areas.

“You’re obviously trackable from all over the planet if you have a cellphone with you, as long as it’s turned on,” said Engel, who is based in Berlin. “It’s possible for almost anyone to track you as long as they are willing to spend some money on it.”

AT&T declined to comment for this story.

Exploiting the SS7 network

The tracking technology takes advantage of the lax security of SS7, a global network that cellular carriers use to communicate with one another when directing calls, texts and Internet data.

The system was built decades ago, when only a few large carriers controlled the bulk of global phone traffic. Now thousands of companies use SS7 to provide services to billions of phones and other mobile devices, security experts say. All of these companies have access to the network and can send queries to other companies on the SS7 system, making the entire network more vulnerable to exploitation. Any one of these companies could share its access with others, including makers of surveillance systems.

The tracking systems use queries sent over the SS7 network to ask carriers what cell tower a customer has used most recently. Carriers configure their systems to transmit such information only to trusted companies that need it to direct calls or other telecommunications services to customers. But the protections against unintended access are weak and easily defeated, said Engel and other researchers.

By repeatedly collecting this location data, the tracking systems can show whether a person is walking down a city street or driving down a highway, or whether the person has recently taken a flight to a new city or country.

“We don’t have a monopoly on the use of this and probably can be sure that other governments are doing this to us in reverse,” said lawyer Albert Gidari Jr., a partner at Perkins Coie who specializes in privacy and technology.

Carriers can attempt to block these SS7 queries but rarely do so successfully, experts say, amid the massive data exchanges coursing through global telecommunications networks. P1 Security, a research firm in Paris, has been testing one query commonly used for surveillance, called an “Any Time Interrogation” query, that prompts a carrier to report the location of an individual customer. Of the carriers tested so far, 75 percent responded to “Any Time Interrogation” queries by providing location data on their customers. (Testing on U.S. carriers has not been completed.)

“People don’t understand how easy it is to spy on them,” said Philippe Langlois, chief executive of P1 Security.

The GSMA, a London-based trade group that represents carriers and equipment manufacturers, said it was not aware of the existence of tracking systems that use SS7 queries, but it acknowledged serious security issues with the network, which is slated to be gradually replaced over the next decade because of a growing list of security and technical shortcomings.

“SS7 is inherently insecure, and it was never designed to be secure,” said James Moran, security director for the GSMA. “It is possible, with access to SS7, to trigger a request for a record from a network.”

The documents for Verint and several other companies say that the surveillance services are intended for governments and that customers must abide by laws regarding their use. Yet privacy advocates and other critics say the surveillance industry is inherently secretive, poorly regulated and indiscriminate in selecting its customers, sometimes putting profoundly intrusive tools into the hands of governments with little respect for human rights or tolerance of political dissent.

Refining the techniques

Engel, the German telecommunications security researcher, was the first to publicly disclose the ability to use carrier networks to surreptitiously gather user location information, at a 2008 conference sponsored by the Chaos Computer Club, a hacker activist group based in Germany. The techniques Engel used that day were far cruder than the ones used by today’s cellular tracking systems but still caused a stir in the security community.

From the lectern, he asked for help from a volunteer from the audience. A man in an untucked plaid shirt ambled up with his cellphone in one hand and a beer in the other. Engel typed the number into his computer, and even though it was for a British phone, a screen at the front of the room soon displayed the current location — in Berlin.

Two years later, a pair of American telecommunications researchers expanded on Engel’s discovery with a program they called “The Carmen Sandiego Project,” named after a popular educational video game and television series that taught geography by having users answer questions.

Researchers Don Bailey and Nick DePetrillo found that the rough locations provided by Engel’s technique could be mixed with other publicly available data to better map the locations of users. They even accessed the video feeds of highway cameras along Interstate 70 in Denver to gain a clearer picture of targeted cellphone users.

“We could tell that they were going a certain speed on I-70,” Bailey recalled. “Not only could you track a person, you could remotely identify a car and who was driving.”

An official for AT&T, Patrick McCanna, was in the audience when DePetrillo and Bailey presented their findings at a conference in 2010. McCanna praised the researchers for their work, they later said, and recruited their help to make it harder to gather location data.

Many of the world’s largest cellular networks made similar efforts, though significant loopholes remained.

As some carriers tightened their defenses, surveillance industry researchers developed even more effective ways to collect data from SS7 networks. The advanced systems now being marketed offer more-precise location information on targets and are harder for carriers to detect or defeat.

Telecommunications experts say networks have become so complex that implementing new security measures to defend against these surveillance systems could cost billions of dollars and hurt the functioning of basic services, such as routing calls, texts and Internet to customers.

“These systems are massive. And they’re running close to capacity all the time, and to make changes to how they interact with hundreds or thousands of phones is really risky,” said Bart Stidham, a longtime telecommunications system architect based in Virginia. “You don’t know what happens.”

Paired up with ‘catchers’

Companies that market SS7 tracking systems recommend using them in tandem with “IMSI catchers,” increasingly common surveillance devices that use cellular signals collected directly from the air to intercept calls and Internet traffic, send fake texts, install spyware on a phone, and determine precise locations.

IMSI catchers — also known by one popular trade name, StingRay — can home in on somebody a mile or two away but are useless if a target’s general location is not known. SS7 tracking systems solve that problem by locating the general area of a target so that IMSI catchers can be deployed effectively. (The term “IMSI” refers to a unique identifying code on a cellular phone.)

The FCC recently created an internal task force to study misuse of IMSI catchers by criminal gangs and foreign intelligence agencies, which reportedly have used the systems to spy on American citizens, businesses and diplomats. It is legal for law enforcement agencies in the United States to use IMSI catchers for authorized purposes.

When asked by The Post about systems that use SS7 tracking, FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said, “This type of system could fall into the category of technologies that we expect the FCC’s internal task force to examine.”

The marketing brochure for Verint’s SkyLock system suggests using it in conjunction with Verint’s IMSI catcher, called the Engage GI2. Together, they allow government agencies “to accurately pinpoint their suspect for apprehension, making it virtually impossible for targets to escape, no matter where they reside in the world.”

Verint can install SkyLock on the networks of cellular carriers if they are cooperative — something that telecommunications experts say is common in countries where carriers have close relationships with their national governments. Verint also has its own “worldwide SS7 hubs” that “are spread in various locations around the world,” says the brochure. It does not list prices for the services, though it says that Verint charges more for the ability to track targets in many far-flung countries, as opposed to only a few nearby ones.

Among the most appealing features of the system, the brochure says, is its ability to sidestep the cellular operators that sometimes protect their users’ personal information by refusing government requests or insisting on formal court orders before releasing information.

“In most cases mobile operators are not willing to cooperate with operational agencies in order to provide them the ability to gain control and manipulate the network services given to its subscribers,” the brochure says. “Verint’s SkyLock is a global geo-location solution which was designed and developed to address the limitations mentioned above, and meet operational agency requirements.”

Another company, Defentek, markets a similar system called Infiltrator Global Real-Time Tracking System on its Web site, claiming to “locate and track any phone number in the world.”

The site adds: “It is a strategic solution that infiltrates and is undetected and unknown by the network, carrier, or the target.”

The company, which according to the Web site is registered in Panama City, declined to comment for this story.

Follow The Post’s tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Post.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Meet Cobol's hard core fans

Meet Cobol's hard core fans
These folks won't migrate. The reason probably isn't what you're thinking.
Robert L. Mitchell

August 21, 2014 (Computerworld)

With the long-anticipated Cobol skills shortage starting to bite, many businesses have been steadily migrating applications off the mainframe. Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina has been doubling down.

The healthcare insurer processes nearly 10% of all healthcare claims in the U.S., and uses six top-of-the line IBM zEnterprise EC12 systems running millions of lines of optimized Cobol to process 19.4 billion online healthcare transactions annually. Its custom-built claims processing engine has been thoroughly modernized and kept up to date, says BCBS of SC vice president and chief technology officer Ravi Ravindra. "It was always in Cobol, and it always will be."

Cobol was designed to handle transactional workloads, and for large-scale transaction processing it still can't be beat, says Lonnie Emard, vice president of IT at BCBS of SC and president of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management (IT-oLogy), a nonprofit association of businesses, vendors and higher education institutions dedicated to helping build a talent pipeline for Cobol and other hard-to-fill IT-related disciplines.

"We are the low-cost provider," Emard says. "We couldn't do that if we weren't on the mainframe."

Some organizations continue to run the business using Cobol on the mainframe simply because migrating all of that code to distributed computing systems without a compelling business benefit wouldn't be worth the trouble and expense. But some of the world's largest businesses see their Cobol infrastructure not as fading legacy technology but as a state-of-the-art, competitive weapon.

For both groups, the challenge lies in finding the next generation of talent to run those systems or risk being forced off the platform. "There's been no abatement in the number of people retiring," says Adam Burden, lead for advanced technology and architecture at Accenture, and the pipeline of new Cobol programming talent has been insufficient to address the impending outflow of retiring baby boomers.

As businesses continue to struggle with the problem, Accenture has been busy adding Cobol programmers to its consulting practice to fill the skills gap for its clients, Burden says, even as IBM, IT-oLogy and others attempt to train and recruit the next generation of mainframe talent.

The mainframe's stronghold

For many businesses in healthcare and other industries with large-scale transaction processing needs, including airlines, retail, banking and government, Cobol on the mainframe remains the core transaction engine. Several mainframe vendors remain in the market, including Unisys, Groupe Bull and Fujitsu, but IBM has the lion's share of the market today, with more than 90%. And 50 years after IBM released its first mainframe, the System/360, in April 1964, the company still has 3,500 mainframe customers.

What's next for zEnterprise

IBM is working to address several shortcomings of the mainframe by focusing on three key areas, says Deon Newman, vice president of IBM System z.

Analytics. IBM wants to provide more analytic capabilities on the platform to reduce the need to continuously move transactional data off the mainframe for processing. "Our customers want to use it in real-time fraud detection, upselling and cross-selling. Some of this will be on zLinux, and some on zOS," Newman says.

Mobile enablement. Java subsystems will allow enterprise applications to be "extended out onto the Web," Newman says. And that will lower some costs of doing business on the mainframe. IBM customers pay based on the number of transactions processed, but many transactions, such as balance inquiries, don't generate revenue. Mobile has greatly expanded the problem, with more than half the workload coming in from the Internet and mobile applications. So IBM recently discounted what it charges for mobile transaction charges by 60%. "That means that software pricing won't explode in the same way that mobile transactions are," he says.

Cloud. IBM is pushing the mainframe as a consolidation platform for x86-based distributed computing in environments where server or virtual machine counts exceed 200. It sees the mainframe as a cloud appliance for hosting distributed computing workloads, and not just for folks who already have a mainframe and have excess capacity to soak up: In April IBM released the Enterprise Cloud System, a fully integrated Linux-based OpenStack-compliant system with a utility-based pricing model.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

Some 23 of the world's top 25 retailers, 92 of the top 100 banks, and the 10 largest insurers all entrust core operations to Cobol programs running on IBM mainframes, says Deon Newman, vice president, IBM System z. Since 2010, around 50 to 75 customers have left the mainframe fold, IBM says, while some 270 of IBM's 3,500 mainframe customers have come aboard as new clients since then, Newman says.

For these mainframe-centric businesses, the Cobol application suite that runs the heart of the business isn't going anywhere. "But they still need to deal with the declining Cobol workforce . . . to keep these systems viable for the next decade or two," says Dale Vecchio, research vice president at Gartner Inc.

As for the other 90% of businesses running mainframes today, Vecchio thinks the Cobol brain drain will be the catalyst for more extensive migrations off the platform, through rewrites, moves to packaged applications or recompiling and re-hosting Cobol on distributed computing platforms.

After years of foot dragging, the looming Cobol brain drain will force many organizations into making a decision -- one way or the other -- within the next three to five years. "Increasingly, I see this transition happening," Vecchio says. "Waiting isn't going to make this any cheaper, and it isn't going to reduce the risk."

United Life Insurance Co. falls into the other 90%. The midsize business migrated off its Unisys mainframe several years ago, but didn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It kept more than 1,000 Cobol programs that run the business, recompiling those for Windows using Micro Focus Visual Cobol, says program manager Jim Veglahn. "You don't just walk away from one million lines of Cobol code," he says. And while it's harder to fill open positions than it was a few years ago, Veglahn says his strategy is to "stay on Cobol and train as needed."

But the demographic shift will, in the long term, make Cobol "almost unsalvageable," says Vecchio. "The only debate is the slope of the decline."

BCBS's Emard disagrees. "Can we keep up with the demand for Cobol talent? Absolutely. The supply needs to be increased with the knowledge that these jobs are not going away," he says.

Vecchio says the number of Gartner clients that want to talk about mainframe migrations is up sharply. "I had 200 mainframe migration inquiries last year, and I have been speaking with thousands of mainframe shops about this whole migration question," he says. Mainframes eventually will be marginalized to only the very largest organizations in the market, Vecchio adds. "They're the only ones who can invest in initiatives and create their own training programs," he says.

Streamlining mainframe applications

Even some of the biggest mainframe shops are streamlining mainframe operations for non-core functions. BNY Mellon runs nine IBM System z10s that supply a total of 54,000 MIPS of compute power and handle $1.5 trillion in transaction processing workloads each day. The Cobol codebase that powers those systems has grown from 343 million lines two years ago to 357 million lines today, adding 2,500 new programs along the way.

"I believe it gives us a competitive advantage, especially with the transaction volumes we're doing," says David Brown, managing director and chief application architect.

But the growth of BNY Mellon's Cobol codebase reflects enhancements to the bank's core transaction processing systems. Few organizations, BNY included, are building entirely new applications in Cobol anymore.

In other areas, BNY Mellon has also been steadily peeling away mainframe applications that aren't strategic to its banking operations. It has moved to packaged applications in some cases, recast some applications in need of a heavy rewrite onto distributed computing platforms and pushed ad-hoc reporting capabilities off the mainframe as well.

I believe [Cobol] gives us a competitive advantage, especially with the transaction volumes we're doing. David Brown, Managing Director And Chief Application Architect, BNY Mellon

"If you're doing sequential processing and you have a mainframe footprint, that's where that functionality belongs," says Brown. "But on things you're doing ad-hoc -- mobile, big data -- all of those run better on distributed platforms."

When applications that used to be hosted on the mainframe are re-hosted or rewritten to run on distributed computing platforms, however, that makes things more complex when it comes to accessing data that still resides back on the mainframe, Brown says.

To avoid that, he has been looking at hosting rewritten applications on a zLinux partition on the mainframe. "I can rewrite a piece of Cobol but closely interface with the mainframe program and database without jumping between a mainframe box and a distributed box," he says.

As for BNY Mellon's core systems, Brown says, "I see Cobol on the mainframe continuing on in perpetuity. Over half of our major applications are still on the mainframe. It offers the best scalability, reliability and availability for doing sequential processing."

Rebuilding the talent pipeline

The idea that Cobol and the mainframe are legacy technology is a perception issue, BCBS of SC's Ravindra argues. It's a mindset that has pushed students away from taking Cobol and other mainframe technology courses, and convinced schools that they shouldn't offer mainframe-related technologies in computer science curricula.

Despite efforts such as the 8-year-old IBM Academic Initiative, the talent pipeline hasn't kept up as the baby boomers who dominate today's mainframe shops begin to retire in larger numbers. "The market, universities and junior colleges aren't generating enough developers to replace those who are retiring," Gartner's Vecchio says -- a sentiment shared by Emard.

"There was no pipeline for Cobol talent, and we realized we couldn't do it by ourselves. It's costly to go it alone," says Emard. So BCBS of SC helped form IT-oLogy. Emard says the goal is to make sure that lack of talent doesn't force companies to move off the mainframe.

The initiative promotes awareness of job opportunities in the discipline, college-level training, internships and cross-training of existing IT professionals. IT-oLogy has doubled the number of schools offering its Mainframe Academic Initiative, and the programs have reduced BCBS of SC's onboarding costs by 50%, Emard says.

How IT-oLogy aims to close the skills gap

While programs like the IBM Academic Initiative promote curricula to higher education institutions for Cobol and other mainframe disciplines, universities weren't always receptive to the idea coming from a vendor, says Lonnie Emard, president of the Consortium for Enterprise Systems Management (IT-oLogy). IT-oLogy conveys the message that its members, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, Time Warner Cable, Fidelity Investments and other firms, are ready and willing to hire graduates with training in Cobol and other hard-to-fill IT disciplines. "We're all about skills in short supply," Emard says.

The program has three pillars:

Promote IT offers outreach to students in grades K-12 to advocate for IT careers and talk about what IT skills will be in demand in the future.

Teach IT is a collaboration between industry and academia to ensure that curricula include subjects that meet the needs of businesses hiring in the IT profession, as well as to provide internship opportunities. Emard sees the program as a "minor league farm system" to develop future IT professionals.

Grow IT focuses on professional development and cross-training for existing IT professionals. -- Robert L. Mitchell

"Today kids have no bias against the mainframe. They're just glad to hear that they can make $60,000 or $70,000 a year. If someone is paying that kind of money it's a nonissue," he says.

Better development tools are also making training new talent easier.

Newer versions of Cobol that work within the Eclipse and .Net integrated development environments, such as Micro Focus Visual Cobol, have made it easier to pull over existing developers from the object-oriented side of the house, although the transition from object-oriented programming to the procedural Cobol language is still jarring, says BNY Mellon's Brown. "You can use the same tools with a common structure, but the paradigm is different," he says.

With modern development tools there's much less actual coding involved. "At BCBS of SC we're not asking people to write lines of pure Cobol code anymore," Emard says. Instead, the business uses an application generator from Micro Focus. "The key is, how do you optimize that with all of the other stuff that comes into play, such as the website and mobile apps. But we still need folks who understand the development environment that has Cobol at its core," he says.

The offshoring option

Offshoring can also help with the Cobol talent shortage. "Accenture has seen a material increase in the number of resources we have that are Cobol knowledgeable," in response to an increase in demand, says Accenture's Burden. "Our clients are looking to third parties to maintain these Cobol applications as it becomes more difficult due to the skills shortage."

But not all businesses want to entrust to outsiders the institutional knowledge of all of the business rules encoded in that Cobol code. What's more, says Vecchio, "A lot of the Indian service providers don't want to do Cobol and be the garbage dump for legacy apps. They want to move upstream and be strategically involved."

U.K. retailer Tesco hired hundreds of local Cobol programmers in India. "Our Cobol development community there is fairly young," says Tom Kadlec, director of information services.

U.K.-based retailer Tesco runs millions of lines of Cobol application code on a 70,000-MIPS zEnterprise EC12 mainframe infrastructure to power its store replenishment, credit card authorization and settlement, and payroll systems. Tesco avoided the institutional-knowledge issue by opening an office in India and directly hiring hundreds of local Cobol programmers as employees. And in India, Tesco doesn't have to worry about the impending retirement of baby-boomer employees. "Our Cobol development community there is fairly young," says Tom Kadlec, director of information services.

Like Ravindra, Kadlec has no intention of migrating the core systems that run the business over to a distributed computing platform. "The combination of our Cobol applications and the mainframe platform is what gives us a competitive advantage," he says.

Preparing for the inevitable

At BNY Mellon, the talent crunch is still about five years away, Brown estimates. Many of the bank's 300 to 400 Cobol programmers were hired right out of college in the 1980s and range in age from 45 to 55, Brown says. "We haven't had the big exodus yet," but as the economy picks up he says he worries that the impending wave of retirements could come sooner rather than later.

The company is working with universities and offshore resources to bring in "younger blood" and get the talent pipeline flowing. But so far, he says, it's been a slow process. Brown has been able to fill vacancies as they crop up, but in the future, retention bonuses and pay premiums may be required to acquire those scarce Cobol skills, he says.

While the types of companies using mainframes and the types of workloads on the mainframe may be evolving, Cobol and related mainframe skill sets will continue to provide jobs for the foreseeable future, says Burden. "On a macro basis I haven't seen a material decline in the amount of Cobol code that's out there." And for every program that does a migration there are still a dozen running -- and those continue to grow and evolve, he says. " I don't see that changing for a decade -- or more," he says.

This article, Meet Cobol's hard core, was originally published at

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter, or email him at

The Golden Age of Neuroscience Has Arrived

The Golden Age of Neuroscience Has Arrived

We have learned more about the thinking brain in the last 10-15 years than in all of human history.

Aug. 20, 2014 7:23 p.m. ET

More than a billion people were amazed this summer when a 29-year-old paraplegic man from Brazil raised his right leg and kicked a soccer ball to ceremonially begin the World Cup. The sight of a paralyzed person whose brain directly controlled a robotic exoskeleton (designed at Duke University) was thrilling.

We are now entering the golden age of neuroscience. We have learned more about the thinking brain in the last 10-15 years than in all of previous human history. A blizzard of the new technologies using advanced physics—resulting in scans and tests we know as fMRI, EEG, PET, DBS, CAT, TCM and TES—have allowed scientists to observe thoughts as they ricochet like a pong ball inside the living brain, and then begin the process of deciphering these thoughts using powerful computers.

The Pentagon, witnessing the human tragedy of the wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan, has invested more than $150 million in the military's Revolutionary Prosthetics program, so that injured veterans can bypass damaged limbs and spinal cords and mentally control state-of-the-art mechanical arms and legs. Already, the technology exists to let you walk into a room and mentally turn on the lights, control appliances, surf the Web, write and send emails, play videogames, dictate articles, control a distant robot or avatar, and even drive a car.

Not just our bodies, but even our memories are now being digitized. Last year at Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California, scientists for the first time were able to record and upload memories directly into an animal brain, which is something straight out of a sci-fi movie like "The Matrix." Scientists there trained mice to perform certain simple tasks, which can be recorded by sensors placed in their brains. After they forget the task, the digitized memory can be reinserted back into their brain, allowing them to remember.

One short-term research goal is to create a "brain pacemaker" for Alzheimer's patients. By pushing a button, a person might be able to remember where they live and where they are. But one can imagine a day in the future when we might even be able to upload the memory of a vacation that we never had, or the math course that we never passed.

Although the technology is still in its infancy, there may come a day when the Internet might be replaced by a Brain-net, in which emotions, sensations, memories and thoughts are sent over the Internet. Think about it: Instead of using clumsy symbols like :), teenagers would go crazy sending all their adolescent emotions and feelings on a mentalized version of Facebook.

A Brain-net could revolutionize every aspect of our life, including education and entertainment. The movies (basically a flat screen with sound) would be replaced by total-immersion entertainment, where we would experience the totality of sensations experienced mentally by the actors. It might also reduce barriers between people, as we would be able to experience their suffering and life stories.

Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley have already made progress in photographing our thoughts. A subject is placed in an Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, which scans your brain as you watch a picture or video. A super computer analyzes this mass of MRI data and then reconstructs a reasonable approximation of the original image. One can imagine the day when we might wake up and watch a video of the dream we had the previous night.

Although years of hard work remain to perfect this technology, the stunning pace of progress has caught the attention of politicians. The European Union and President Obama have collectively pledged more than $1 billion to spearhead this technology. In the U.S. it's called the Brain Initiative, and one objective is to completely map all the circuits of the entire brain.

The short-term goal is to alleviate the suffering caused by mental illness. (According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults will suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year.) But over time the impact of brain-circuit mapping could be as profound as the Human Genome Project, which has revolutionized medicine. In the future, we might have two disks. One disk will contain our genome, containing a genetic blueprint of our body. But the other disk will have our "connectome," storing all the circuits of our brain, conceivably containing our emotions, memories and personality traits.

Even if we die, our genome and connectome will live on. One day we might have a "library of souls," in which we can have a scintillating discussion with our long-dead ancestors or even historical figures. We could talk to a hologram of an ancestor, for instance, which can access all that person's memories and personality.

So the promise of this new revolution in neuroscience is profound, holding out the ability to someday alleviate suffering and enhance our true mental potential. This technology has the power to radically change the medical, scientific, social and even political landscape for the benefit of humanity.

Mr. Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York and author of "The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind" (Doubleday, 2014).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Battle Over Government-Run Internet Heats Up at FCC

The Battle Over Government-Run Internet Heats Up at FCC

A Republican aide claims the federal agency can't overturn state restrictions.
By Brendan Sasso

August 20, 2014 If Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to stop states from blocking city-run broadband, he'll likely have to override Republican opposition to do it.

In a speech Wednesday, a top Republican FCC aide argued that the agency lacks the authority to overturn state laws on the issue. More than 20 states, at the behest of cable and telecom industry lobbyists, have restricted the ability of cities to build their own broadband networks.

Matthew Berry, the chief of staff to Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, argued that cities and towns are just "appendages" of state governments. States are free to restrict local policymaking as they see fit, Berry argued.

He acknowledged that the federal government can preempt state laws, but only through a "clear statement" from Congress. Without that congressional authorization, the FCC can't take action, Berry said.

The Republican aide implied that Wheeler is only contemplating action on the issue as a way to tamp down liberal outrage over his proposal for weaker net-neutrality regulations.

"We do not have the bandwidth to waste on a symbolic, feel-good effort that appears designed to appease a political constituency that is unhappy with where the FCC is headed on other issues," Berry said at a conference of state legislators in Minneapolis. He warned that the FCC will only lose in court if it tries to act against state laws.

In letters to members of Congress, Wheeler has said federal preemption is "not a step to be taken lightly" and that the agency would examine each state law individually.

But he has insisted that he has the authority to overturn the laws, which he argues restrict competition and leave consumers with slower Internet service.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives the FCC the authority to "promote the deployment" of high-speed Internet. State restrictions on local Internet projects may be in violation of that provision, according to Wheeler. The legal question is whether the provision gives the agency "clear" authority to strike down state laws.

The agency is considering petitions from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overturn state restrictions so they can expand their municipal projects.

Internet providers and many state lawmakers argue that the city-run projects can waste taxpayer money. But Wheeler and congressional Democrats argue the projects can boost economic development by providing high-speed Internet access to local businesses.

The projects are often built in areas without high-speed Internet service from commercial providers.

"I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband," Wheeler wrote in a June blog post. "Given the opportunity, we will do so."

Berry said he believes the FCC may take action before the end of the year. His boss, Ajit Pai, is one of two Republicans on the five-member commission. Wheeler could override Republican opposition and strike down state laws with the support of the two other commission Democrats.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Community Health says data stolen in cyber attack from China

Community Health says data stolen in cyber attack from China
BOSTON/NEW YORK Mon Aug 18, 2014 6:48pm EDT

(Reuters) - Community Health Systems Inc (CYH.N), one of the biggest U.S. hospital groups, said on Monday it was the victim of a cyber attack from China, resulting in the theft of Social Security numbers and other personal data belonging to 4.5 million patients.

Security experts said the hacking group, known as "APT 18," may have links to the Chinese government.

"APT 18" typically targets companies in the aerospace and defense, construction and engineering, technology, financial services and healthcare industry, said Charles Carmakal, managing director with FireEye Inc's (FEYE.O) Mandiant forensics unit, which led the investigation of the attack on Community Health in April and June.

"They have fairly advanced techniques for breaking into organizations as well as maintaining access for fairly long periods of times without getting detected," he said.

The information stolen from Community Health included patient names, addresses, birth dates, telephone numbers and Social Security numbers of people who were referred or received services from doctors affiliated with the hospital group in the last five years, the company said in a regulatory filing.

The stolen data did not include medical or clinical information, credit card numbers, or any intellectual property such as data on medical device development, said Community Health, which has 206 hospitals in 29 states.

The attack is the largest of its type involving patient information since a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website started tracking such breaches in 2009. The previous record, an attack on a Montana Department of Public Health server, was disclosed in June and affected about 1 million people.

Chinese hacking groups are known for seeking intellectual property, such as product design, or information that might be of use in business or political negotiations.

Social Security numbers and other personal data are typically stolen by cybercriminals to sell on underground exchanges for use by others in identity theft.

Over the past six months Mandiant has seen a spike in cyber attacks on healthcare providers, although this was the first case it had seen in which a sophisticated Chinese group has stolen personal data, according to Carmakal. Mandiant monitors about 20 hacking groups in China.


Cybersecurity has come under increased scrutiny at healthcare providers this year, both by law enforcement and attackers.

The FBI warned the industry in April that its protections were lax compared with other sectors, making it vulnerable to hackers looking for details that could be used to access bank accounts or obtain prescriptions.

Mandiant has tracked "APT 18" for four years. When asked if the hackers were linked to the Chinese government, Carmakal said it was "a possibility" but declined to elaborate.

Another cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, which has also been monitoring "APT 18" for about four years, said it believes the hackers are either backed by Beijing or work directly for the government, based on the targets they have chosen.

CrowdStrike Chief Technology Officer Dmitri Alperovitch said his firm has seen "APT 18" targeting human rights groups and chemical companies.

"They are of above average skill" among Chinese hackers, said Alperovitch, whose company dubbed the group "Dynamite Panda."

The issue of Chinese state-sponsored hacking is highly sensitive. Tensions between Washington and Beijing have grown since May, when a U.S. grand jury indicted five Chinese military officers on charges they hacked into American companies for sensitive manufacturing secrets. China has denied the charges.

FBI spokesman Joshua Campbell said his agency was investigating the Community Health case, but declined to elaborate.

The Department of Homeland Security said it believed the incident was isolated, although it shared technical details about the attack with other healthcare providers. An agency official told Reuters it was too soon to say who was behind the attack.

Community Health said it has removed malicious software used by the attackers from its systems and completed other remediation steps. It is now notifying patients and regulatory agencies, as required by law.

The company said it is insured against such losses and does not at this time expect a material adverse effect on financial results. Community Health's stock rose 66 cents, or 1.3 percent, to close at $51.66 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday.

(Reporting by Caroline Humer, Jim Finkle and Shailesh Kuber; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tiffany Wu)