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CSE News

  • CSE Researchers Report Security Flaws in Backscatter X-ray Scanners

    A team of researchers from UC San Diego's Computer Science and Engineering department and co-authors from the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University have discovered several security vulnerabilities in full-body backscatter X-ray scanners deployed to U.S. airports between 2009 and 2013.

    In laboratory tests, the team was able to successfully conceal firearms and plastic explosive simulants from the Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanner.  The team was also able to modify the scanner operating software so it presents an “all-clear” image to the operator even when contraband was detected.  “Frankly, we were shocked by what we found,” said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “A clever attacker can smuggle contraband past the machines using surprisingly low-tech techniques.”

    The researchers attribute these shortcomings to the process by which the machines were designed and evaluated before their introduction at airports.  “The system’s designers seem to have assumed that attackers would not have access to a Secure 1000 to test and refine their attacks,” said Hovav Shacham (above right, with CSE Ph.D. student Keaton Mowery), a professor of computer science at UC San Diego.  However, the researchers were able to purchase a government-surplus machine found on eBay and subject it to laboratory testing.

    Many physical security systems that protect critical infrastructure are evaluated in secret, without input from the public or independent experts, the researchers said.  In the case of the Secure 1000, that secrecy did not produce a system that can resist attackers who study and adapt to new security measures.  “Secret testing should be replaced or augmented by rigorous, public, independent testing of the sort common in computer security,” said Shacham (at left, in front of the backscatter x-ray scanner as during a security check).

    Secure 1000 scanners were removed from airports in 2013 due to privacy concerns, and are now being repurposed to jails, courthouses, and other government facilities.  The researchers have suggested changes to screening procedures that can reduce, but not eliminate, the scanners’ blind spots.  However, “any screening process that uses these machines has to take into account their limitations,” said Shacham.

    The researchers shared their findings with the Department of Homeland Security and Rapiscan, the scanner’s manufacturer, in May.  The team will present their findings publicly at the USENIX Security conference, Thursday Aug. 21, in San Diego.  (Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications)

    View details of the results at
    To contact the research team, e-mail
    Read more about CSE faculty, student and alumni participation in USENIX Security 2014.

  • Alumni Succeed in Aerial Drone Cinematography Kickstarter Appeal

    A group of CSE alumni have started a new company called SparkAerial, and just launched a campaign on the Kickstarter crowdfunding service. As of Aug. 19, with 20 days to go in the campaign and 76 backers committed, the startup had already surpassed their $5,000 goal, so the Aerial Cinematography Flight School will be funded on September 9 to the tune of $5,686, plus whatever amount is funded in the next 20 days.

    CEO/President Radley Angelo (BS Computer Science '12), pictured at center with, at left, COO Kurt Selander (BS Computer Engineering '13) and CFO/Lead Software Engineer Austin Hill (BS Computer Engineering '13) bill their company as a full-service shop for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), offering custom-built quadcopters and other flying UAVs, and also providing aerial cinematography services. As CSE students, Angelo, Selander and Hill participated in the Engineers for Exploration program, co-directed by CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner and Qualcomm Institute research scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin. Angelo even accompanied Lin on a National Geographic expedition to Mongolia in search of Genghis Khan's tomb. Since then, the students' work has been featured on CNN, ABC's Good Morning America, BuzzFeed, TechCrunch and the National Geographic Channel.

    The Kickstarter campaign funds will primarily allow the team to make an aerial cinematography video training series, including Aerial Photography 101, and Quadcopter/UAVs 101. According to their crowdfunding appeal, the students "want to teach the world how to have fun, fly safe, and capture amazing content." The series will cover everything from the basics (such as choosing a copter and taking off for the first time), to more advanced piloting maneuvers.The Kickstarter funds could also allow SparkAerial to build an online resource center for aspiring drone pilots. 

    Visit the SparkAerial website.
    Read more about the Kickstarter campaign.
    Watch a video showcasing SparkAerial's capabilities.

  • CSE, UCSD-TV Sign Partnership for 'Computing Primetime'

    Get ready to watch more news and discussion about the world of computing on UCSD-TV and the University of California-TV. After extensive discussions about the way forward, the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and UCSD-TV have signed a joint production agreement that will put new programming on the television network's schedule as early as October 2014.

    "It's my pleasure to announce the launch of our Computing Primetime broadcast initiative," said CSE Chair Rajesh Gupta. In the first year, he added, "this partnership will provide for production and broadcasting of eight programs to be aired on UCSD-TV and UCTV throughout California on a must-carry community channel." The programs will also be available on cable stations around the country and via a free channel on the high-speed streaming service, Roku. The programming will also be available online through a variety of video-on-demand websites, including iTunes U and YouTube. There is even a free mobile UCTV app from Apple's iTunes store to help with downloading or streaming video or audio-only versions of the programs.

    The programs will be produced as a partnership between CSE and UCSD-TV. Half the programs will be produced in the studio as one-on-one interviews with "visionaries in computing." The other programs will be hour-long faculty or guest lectures. Each program will air at least four times in primetime hours across UCTV and UCSD-TV, and a total of at least 45 times around the clock during the 12 months following each program's premiere showing. In addition, UCSD-TV will continue to air field reports and programs produced by CSE personnel in conjunction with Calit2's Qualcomm Institute and the Jacobs School of Engineering. In announcing the agreement Aug. 11, CSE's Gupta encourage faculty members to propose topics and potential speakers for future programs. "With this, we take our first steps into creating an important step in educating the general public about the importance of computer science and its impact on society and life," said Gupta. "We hope that Computing Primetime will also earn us important name recognition for a young department."

  • CSE Faculty Participate in New Funding Channel for Research

    More than 100 UC San Diego researchers will be involved in a two-year pilot program on Benefunder, a San Diego-based philanthropic research funding platform for higher education institutions. Benefunder and UC San Diego signed a Memorandum of Understanding to embark on the pilot program, and their long-term goal is "to allow junior and senior faculty in diverse disciplines to create funding relationships with private supporters from across the country, and generate one-time and recurring donations to fund their work and vision." According to Vice Chancellor for Research Sandra Brown, UC San Diego researchers "work on some of the most critical issues facing the world today. Benefunder is a way for donations to have a direct and powerful effect—to help understand and solve problems and enhance the quality of lives around the world. The hope is that working together we will actively expand funding opportunities for our researchers through new engagements.”

    Indeed, UC San Diego has the largest presence among universities on Benefunder to date, in part because ECE Prof. Gert Lanckriet is a co-founder of the platform, which is pending status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Well over half the existing profiles feature UC San Diego faculty, with a fair number featuring CSE professors. They include Ryan Kastner ("extending the limits of human exploration using drones and 3D imaging"), Scott Klemmer, pictured at left ("leveraging human-computer interaction for social and psychological design excellence"), Stefan Savage and his "Fast & Furious Cybercrime-Stompers," Lawrence Saul (pictured at top), whose focus is on "Ending Malware Mayhem", and former CSE Prof. Serge Belongie (now at CornellTech). Presumably more CSE faculty members who want to attract philanthropic support will be added to the roster as more UC San Diego professors are featured on the website.

  • Undergraduates Prepare for Summer Research Conference

    The 2014 UC San Diego Summer Research Conference takes place August 14 from 8am to 4pm in the UC San Diego Price Center. It is open to all undergraduate student speakers who are working on a research project in the San Diego area this summer, including at universities other than UC San Diego. Non-UC San Diego speakers come from Cal State San Marcos, Point Loma Nazarene, SDSU, San Diego City College, and University of San Diego. Other speakers include students from institutions outside of California who had the opportunity to do research in San Diego. Each panel will consist of a faculty moderator and a group of between four and eight student speakers. The event is organized by the Academic Enrichment Programs office in Student Affairs.

    All told, more than 230 students will present their research. Panel #6 on Electrical and Computer Engineering will be moderated by CSE's Mia Minnes, and the panel will include a student mentored by Minnes (math major Matthew Kleinsmith), and another by CSE's Ryan Kastner (Howard University computer science major Jeremy Blackstone, who is investigating how to add flexibiilty to memory architecture in development using Open Computing Language, or OpenCL). On Panel #25, computer science major Ryan Soscia (at left), with a specialization in bioinformatics, will talk about the work he is doing as part of the Qualcomm Institute's Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars program. Working with neuroscientist Maryann Martone in the institute, Soscia is developing a Research Optimization Model to construct "knowledge vectors" to represent the robustness of integrated experimental results, using neuroscience as a case study. Finally, on Panel #30, computer science major Henry Truong will talk about his protein-modeling project with Skaggs School professor Peter Rose. According to an abstract for his talk, Truong's aim is "to develop an algorithm that requires less memory while striving to be as accurate as possible" without relying on using every single atom to create the surface of the protein for algorithms to render proteins. (A total of six Calit2 Scholars from the Qualcomm Institute will be presenting at the Summer Research Conference.

    Read the full conference schedule.
    Download the final conference program in PDF format.

  • Petition and Report at DEF CON Echo CSE Report on Automotive Hacking

    Remember the headlines when a team of computer scientists from CSE and the University of Washington called attention to the dangers of automobiles being hacked? They first made the news in 2010, when CSE Prof. Stefan Savage and CSE alumnus Tadayoshi Kohno (MS '04, Ph.D. '06), now a professor at UW, presented a peer-reviewed "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile." The two groups of researchers had come together in a Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security, primarily with funding from the NSF, and their landmark paper was presented at the 2010 IEEE Symposium on Security and Policy. Well now, four years later, a group of cybersecurity experts at DEF CON 22, the annual conference on hacking that ended Aug. 10 in Las Vegas, have responded with a policy prescription that they call a "Five Star Automotive Cyber Safety Program." The informal group calls itself "I Am The Cavalry", and the five stars of the title refer to five areas where they say action is needed to keep cars safe from hackers. They include: safety by design; third-party collaboration; evidence capture; security updates; as well as segmentation and isolation. Those five "critical capabilities" are also at the core of a public petition to the automotive industry, posted on by The Cavalry, calling on the automotive industry to "set a new standard for safety."

    Read the 2010 Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile.  
    Learn more about the Five Star Automotive Cyber Safety Program. open letter to the automotive industry.

  • New York Times Talks Big Data with CSE's Smarr

    Also in the news this week: CSE Prof. Larry Smarr (at left, addressing a recent Big Data conference). He was featured in a New York Times article in the Sunday, August 10, edition, with the eye-catching title, “What Cars Did for Today’s World, Data May Do for Tomorrow’s.” In it, writer Quentin Hardy argues that many of technological innovations of today – from social networks to smartphones and the “shiny new app” – are a small part of a much larger "world-changing ecosystem of digital hardware and software." He goes on to highlight the announcement in June that researchers at UC San Diego “announced a new method of engineering fiber-optic cable that could make digital networks run 10 times faster.” "The idea is to get more parts of the system working closer to the speed of light,” writes Hardy, “without involving the 'slow' processing of electronic semiconductors." 

    “We’re going from millions of personal computers and billions of smartphones to tens of billions of devices, with and without people, and that is the early phase of all this,” CSE’s Smarr is quoted as saying. “A gigabit a second was fast in commercial networks, now we’re at 100 gigabits a second. A terabit a second will come and go. A petabit a second will come and go.” In other words, notes the article, Smarr thinks commercial networks will eventually be 10,000 times as fast as today’s best systems. Concludes Smarr, who also directs the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2): “It will have to grow, if we’re going to continue what has become our primary basis of wealth creation.”

    Read the full New York Times article.

  • Computer Scientists Contribute to La Jolla Science 'Mecca'

    Computer scientists at UC San Diego are among the many scientists highlighted in a major feature published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on August 9 under the title, “Science mecca blooms in La Jolla.” More specifically, science writer Gary Robbins recounts the history of science along the Torrey Pines Mesa, starting in the early 20th century. UC San Diego is by far the largest player and employer in the region, employing more scientists than all of the other institutions – including the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, and Sanford-Burnham – combined.

    The UT article also highlights a long list of notable and award-winning scientists by institution. Representing computer science were Kenneth Bowles, who modified the Pascal programming language with his students, turning it into UCSD Pascal, and “allowing a program to be moved around from machine to machine, a technique now widely used to build mobile applications.” Also of note: then-CSE Prof. George Varghese (who recently moved to Microsoft Research) and CSE Prof. Stefan Savage, who together developed “the first automated method for automatically identifying worm and virus attacks across the Internet and other high-speed networks almost as soon as the outbreaks occur.” Their NetSift startup was later acquired by Cisco Systems. Finally, the UT underscors the work of computer scientist Terry Sejnowski, who splits his time between the Salk Institute and UC San Diego, where he is a CSE faculty-affiliate and co-director of the Institute for Neural Computation. Sejnowski is cited for having “pioneered the use of computers to model the brain, revealing more about diseases like multiple sclerosis.” (Pictured above l-r: Kenneth Bowles, George Varghese, Stefan Savage, and Terry Sejnowski)

    Read the full article on “Science mecca blooms in La Jolla”.

  • Learn to 'Mod' While Playing Minecraft

    The folks behind ThoughtSTEM, a company co-founded by CSE graduate students to offer computer science education to children and teens, have now come up with a software package that allows students to learn how to program on their own while playing the computer game, Minecraft. Called LearnToMod, the software is essentially a textbook that covers all introductory programming concepts. According to company founder and CSE Ph.D. student Stephen Foster, “Our goal is to teach kids computer science while they’re having fun.”

    LearnToMod is web-based and can run on both PCs and Apple computers that run Windows, iOS or Linux. The software will give users access to a ‘modding’ studio, where they can code their own modifications – ‘mods’ in computer lingo – to the Minecraft game. Users can choose between two programming languages, Javascript or Google’s Blocky language. They can also share their code with others and remix code that others have written. In addition, users get access to a private testing area where they can run the mods they have created. LearnToMod also teaches users about key concepts in computer science, including loops, functions, Boolean logic, variables and parameters, and users get access to hundreds of instructional videos and quizzes tailored for students who are learning to program.  Foster plans to present a paper on the program at the 2015 Computer Human Interaction conference in Seoul, Korea, in April 2015.

    In addition to Foster, co-founders of ThoughtSTEM include CSE Ph.D. student Sarah Esper, and Biochemistry Ph.D. student Lindsey Handley, all from UC San Diego. The LearnToMod software will be delivered in October, but it is available for pre-order for $30 here. Also beginning in October, ThoughtSTEM will launch an online course designed for students who are just learning to program using LearnToMod, and students can earn college credit through UC San Diego for completing the online course. 

    Read the full news release. 
    Watch a video about LearnToMod and Minecraft on YouTube.

  • Computers – and Robots – in Everyday Life

    Nineteen high-school students from around California are finishing up their month-long residential program focused on “Computers in Everyday Life,” co-taught by (pictured at right) CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner and Qualcomm Institute principal development engineer Curt Schurgers (far left). The students make up the computing cluster of the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), which offers residential programs for 150 students on each of its four UC campuses (Davis, Irvine, San Diego and Santa Cruz). In addition to the computing cluster, other groups at UC San Diego focused on topics such as optics and photonics, tissue engineering, marine sciences and so on. All the clusters were designed for 'talented and motivated students.' “In four short weeks these high school students were exposed to a variety of programming environments and concepts ranging from mobile phone apps, to robotics, sensors and actuators,” said CSE’s Kastner. “The students conceptualized and developed their final projects in less than four days, combining the ideas that they learned in the previous weeks with their own ingenuity and a lot of hard work. The end results were outstanding.”

    On Aug. 1 the COSMOS teams in the computing cluster presented their final projects. The top award went to students Rachel Hong and Tiffany Chen (at right) for their project, “Mobile Application for Color Vision Deficiency and Betterment of Object Distinction (LUMOS).” The mobile app has three components: tests for determining red-green colorblindness; a filter for helping those with such color-blindness better see the distinctions between colors; and a ‘color identifier’ that recognizes colors in an image taken with a smartphone’s camera.

    The award for "most innovative use of Cluster 1 technology" went to Colby Hester, Yannan Tuo and Elaine Chien (pictured below right), for "Navigational Automated Assistance for the Visually Impaired (NAAVI),” which is essentially a robotic dog for the blind. Noting that it costs between $20,000 and $40,000 to provide one person with a guide dog for one year, the students demonstrated that their Arduino-controlled Scribbler robot could be used to detect and alert a user to obstacles in his or her path for a fraction of the cost of a guide dog. Other projects included an app designed to teach the general public about number bases (a fundamental of computer science), an algorithm for autonomous image tracking that can detect features and colors, a robotic arm, an autonomous watering system for gardens, and a robot that can navigate and map tunnels.

    Read the full news release. 
    Learn more about the COSMOS program at UC San Diego. 
    Visit the Cluster 1: Computers in Everyday Life website.

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