Computer Science

Conference Spotlight: NSDI’12

Name: The 9th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation (proceedings)

Date: April 25 – 27, 2012

Location: San Jose, CA

Overview: Mostly three (sometimes two) papers per session. Eleven sessions, so less than 33 papers. Two sessions on Big Data (second session actually parallel computing!), two on security/privacy, two on datacenters/cloud. Relevant sessions: one on wireless (maybe too low-level), one on new architectures and platforms.

Authors: MSR and UC Berkeley seem to be competing for domination of this conference. Other top industry and universities are present. Surprising number of Wiconsin papers, but it turns out that they’re ranked about the same as Michigan (which is of course awesome). I should pay more attention to Wisconsin.

Relevant/Notable Papers:

Best Paper: ”Resilient Distributed Datasets: A Fault-Tolerant Abstraction for In-Memory Cluster Computing“. UC Berkeley, including Ion Stoica who worked on Chord, which is very cool. After reading the abstract for this one, I’m not sure why it’s so cool. Will have to read/watch talk to get it.

Posters/Demos: Only thirteen! Notable projects: Carat, UW’s third party tracking in the wild, PhoneLab. A couple of anomaly-detection things, including anomaly-detection in sensor networks.

Notes: Serval seems useful for sensing – splitting the service-level control and data planes to better serve mobile or multi-homed clients. But then there’s XIA, which says that switching to another newfangled internet architecture still means the losing architectures can’t play. XIA was designed to support interoperability between all of them (should read, sounds good).

Multi-path TCP paper. Might be useful for I/O over different channels. Maybe useful for software-defined lighting? Downlink through light, uplink through radio? Downlink would need to be infrequent or low bandwidth, such as control sequences or commands for a phone. (Broadcast data like room ID doesn’t require uplink.) The multi-path TCP paper, like so many others, cited the characteristics of mobile devices, datacenters in its motivation. These are apparently what we care about these days.

What is content-aware networking? What is distributed differential privacy?

At first, I didn’t think that NSDI was going to have much to offer as far as wireless sensor networking/smart environments go. However, networking in general deals with many basic concerns and themes that are pretty relevant to sensor networks. There is accounting and attribution, malicious subsets of the network, unforeseen global behavior arising from decentralized interactions, generalization and abstraction for handling heterogeneity, dealing with churn, addressing resources, privacy protections for location data, and much more. Very interesting conference.

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Research Mantra

I am currently applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which is a difficult and competitive application. I happened to glance through my grad school application essays, and I found the following passage. It is a rather nice reminder of why I came here; good thoughts to repeat when the way becomes dark.

In undergraduate coursework, we are taught solutions to problems that people have already solved; we learn about tools and constructs that others have already devised. To prepare us to take part in scientifi c discourse, we in our academic infancy must first learn the common language in which ideas are communicated. Progress builds upon the collective body of knowledge that mankind bears like a torch and passes down to successive generations.

Yet once you begin to grapple with things that no one yet understands, you must know how to operate in the face of uncertainties and unknowns. To explore the uncharted takes a different set of skills: research skills. I seek a PhD not for the degree itself, but for the research proficiency acquired in the pursuit of it. The academic training that a PhD entails would give me the capacity to seek out any frontier of research, and, peering into an unknown, take the next step into the wild.

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City Council, Meet a Raspberry Pi

This is old news, but I’ve been meaning to write it up for a while. In June, the Ann Arbor City Council voted to kill legislation that Councilman Warpehoski, Councilman Anglin, and Police Chief Seto had been working on for three years. The law would have required that the police get approval from affected citizens and alert the public before deploying long-term surveillance cameras or when using drones.

My problem wasn’t so much with the decision of the council as it was with their line of reasoning. The opposition was heavily based on fear of terrorism, and suffered from the fact that the council members know, collaborate with, and trust Police Chief Seto (who, to his credit, does seem like an amiable and professional person). Arguments against the bill included terrorist attack scenarios during an event on Main Street or a football game, and the direct quote, “If the Chief of Police wants to point a camera at someone’s front door, by God, I say let him do it!”

What was missing was someone who could explain why privacy was important, and why it might need preemptive legislation. For lack of a more qualified candidate, I spoke during general public commentary the following month (despite extreme nervousness). Here’s the video. I start at 14:00.

My name is Meghan Clark, and I am a resident of Ward 1. I am also a PhD student in computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, and I have some remarks about the surveillance bill that this council rejected last month, which would have required a democratic approval process for police deployment of long-term surveillance cameras and drones.

Technology is advancing far faster than the law. Automated data collection has become so cost-effective that you no longer have to be a person of interest to be monitored. This little board is a camera with a video resolution of 1080p, the same as Full HD video. This [other] board is a Raspberry Pi, a desktop computer the size of a credit card that can run powerful and freely-available real-time video processing and computer vision libraries. You can buy these components anywhere online for a total price of just 60 dollars.

A friend of mine runs the Washington DC Area Drone Users Group, which currently has 471 active members [10/2013: Now 665]. Police departments in at least 13 different states have applied for, and in many cases received, FAA approval to use drones during the course of police work.

Surveillance technology is here. The legal predisposition to protect privacy is not.

Well, why should we care? We should care because privacy is the ability to choose what information people know about you, and which people know it. Privacy means having input into what happens to your personal information. It is synonymous with individual autonomy and empowerment. The surveillance bill was not meant to “tie the hands of the police,” but to protect the voice and participation of the people.

In light of rapid social and technological change, I fear a future where the expectation to privacy is given up before laws to protect it can be passed. Every day I see this future come closer, and as a computer scientist, and as a citizen, I am frightened. Since you have rejected a preemptive regulatory framework, I implore you to at least put forth the policy guidelines suggested by Councilman Kunselman, to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that when faced with a shifting landscape of persistent dangers and unprecedented technological abilities, we stand by the principles that made this country great.