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Tech Beat - December 23, 2008

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: April 25, 2011
Date Modified: April 25, 2011 
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NIST Report Identifies Security Threats, Possible Controls for Overseas Voting

Electronic technologies could be deployed immediately and reliably to augment slower postal mail for distributing ballots to U.S. citizens living abroad, but using telephone, e-mail, and the Web to transmit completed ballots still faces significant, unresolved issues, according a new report* released today by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Funded by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the new NIST report provides the first wide-ranging look at the security threats associated with potential electronic technologies for overseas voting and identifies possible ways of mitigating these threats. The need to verify that each completed ballot comes from a registered voter while preserving voter privacy and to ensure that the ballot has not been changed in transit makes the threats to the return of voted ballots by e-mail and Web “difficult to overcome,” according to the study.

The report discusses how postal mail and four electronic transmission options (telephone, fax, e-mail, and Web sites) could be used in the overseas voting process. It identifies issues and threats associated with using these methods to register voters, distribute blank ballots and return voted ballots. In addition, the report suggests control measures, such as cryptography and back-up communication lines, for mitigating some of the specific threats identified.

Overseas citizens follow the rules of their home states, which typically have their own specific laws covering how overseas citizens register and vote. Overseas voting generally relies upon postal and military mail as the mechanism to distribute and receive election materials though some states have begun to distribute blank ballots by fax or e-mail. At this time there are no guidelines that document best practices for fax, e-mail or Web-based distribution of ballots. Developing such best practices, according to the report, could help states develop methods for distributing ballots using these transmission methods and potentially improve the procedures and technical controls already in place in the states currently using these systems.

For more details, see the NIST news release “Electronic Methods Potentially Secure for Sending Blank Ballots Overseas; Serious Issues Remain for Receiving Votes.”

* A. Regenscheid and N. Hastings. A Threat Analysis on UOCAVA Voting Systems (NISTIT 7551), National Institute of Standards and Technology, December, 2008. Full report at http://vote.nist.gov/uocava-threatanalysis-final.pdf.

Media Contact: Ben Stein, ben.stein@nist.gov, 301-975-3097

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Electromagnetic Phantom Exorcises Specters of Metal Detector Tests

researcher John Jendzurski
Guest researcher John Jendzurski prepares the NIST electromagnetic phantom for passage through the walk-through metal detector behind it. The carbon-polymer blocks of the phantom are arranged in a form that simulates the mass and height of the average American adult male. Metal objects such as the mock eyeglasses and belt buckle (top and center of the phantom) test the detector's function.
Credit: M.E. Newman, NIST
View hi-resolution image

In the comics, the Phantom is a masked crimefighter who protected the innocent from pirates, hijackers and other evildoers. While not as dashing or exciting as its costumed namesake, this electromagnetic phantom—a carbon and polymer mixture that simulates the human body—is being readied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for its upcoming role as a different kind of protector. The NIST phantom serves as a mannequin in a standardized performance test for walk-through metal detectors or WTMDs such as those used at airports.

Metal detectors currently are evaluated by using “clean testers” (human subjects) who walk through the detector adorned with different types of innocuous metal objects, such as eyeglasses, belt buckles, watches, jewelry and coins, or by a piece of plywood pushed through the metal detector with the same items mounted on it. The disadvantage of using human subjects is that person-to-person variability in physical makeup and walking style and changes in a particular person’s gait or position at each pass makes standardization impossible. The second method is reproducible, but it can’t tell evaluators how a human body may impact the WTMD’s ability to discriminate between weapons and innocuous objects.

The solution for both problems came from the lab. With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), researchers in NIST’s Electromagnetics Division mixed a polymer with carbon black—a fine powder made almost entirely of elemental carbon—to yield a low-cost, easily molded compound that can mimic the average electrical conductivity of the human body (which includes blood, bone, fat, organs, muscle and skin). The material is shaped into brick-like blocks and then arranged on a non-conductive fiberglass frame in a form that simulates the mass and height of the average American adult male.

Once assembled, the NIST phantom is placed atop a low-friction nonmetallic cart and passed through a WTMD at a speed of 0.5 meters per second by a computer-controlled actuator. This speed was selected because it is a common walking pace for an adult male. Engineers in NIST’s Office of Law Enforcement Standards used the data from recent trials to design and support a reproducible process incorporating the phantom that will evaluate a walk-through metal detector’s ability to discriminate between threatening and non-threatening objects, such as the simulated eyeglasses or belt buckle. Plans call for the testing protocol to be considered in a future revision of the NIJ standard on metal detector performance.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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Cracking a Tough Nut for the Semiconductor Industry

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a method to measure the toughness—the resistance to fracture—of the thin insulating films that play a critical role in high-performance integrated circuits. The new technique could help improve the reliability and manufacturability of ICs and, better yet, it’s one that state-of-the-art microelectronics manufacturers can use with equipment they already own.

punched hole
Typical low-k film test for material toughness using the new NIST technique. The indentation instrument that punches the triangular hole registers the forces involved. That plus the length of the resulting cracks determines the toughness of the film, which is about 2.4 micrometers thick. (Color added for clarity.)
Credit: NIST
View hi-resolution image

At issue is the mechanical strength of so-called “low-k” dielectric layers—electrically insulating films only a couple of micrometers thick that are interleaved between layers of conductors and components in microprocessor chips and other high-performance semiconductor devices. As IC features like transistors have gotten ever smaller and crammed more closely together, designers are preventing electrical interference or “cross-talk” by making the insulating films more and more porous with nanoscale voids—but this has made them more fragile. Brittle fracture failure of low-k insulating films remains a problem for the industry, affecting both manufacturing yields and device reliability. To date, there has been no accurate method to measure the fracture resistance of such films, which makes it difficult to design improved dielectrics.

NIST researchers believe they have found an answer to the measurement problem in a new adaptation of a materials test technique called nanoindentation. Nanoindentation works by pressing a sharp, hard object—a diamond tip—and observing how much pressure it takes to deform the material. For roughly 20 years, researchers have known how to measure elasticity and plasticity—the forces needed to bend a material either temporarily or permanently—of materials at very small scales with nanoindenters. But toughness, the force needed to actually break the material, has been, well, tougher. Thin films were particularly problematic because they necessarily must be layered on top of another stronger material, such as a silicon wafer.

The new NIST technique requires a slight modification of the nanoindentation equipment—the probe has to have a sharper, more acute point than normally used—and a hefty dose of theory. Pressing carefully on the dielectric film generates cracks as small as 300 nanometers, which are measured by electron microscopy. Just how the cracks form depends on a complex interaction involving indentation force, film thickness, film stress and the elastic properties of the film and the silicon substrate. These variables are plugged into a new fracture mechanics model that predicts not only the fracture toughness but also another key value, the critical film thickness for spontaneous fracture.

Using this methodology, device manufacturers will be able to eliminate some candidate interconnect dielectric films from consideration without further expensive device testing. The measurement technique and model were published in a two-part series in the Journal of Materials Research.*

* D.J. Morris and R.F. Cook. Indentation fracture of low-dielectric constant films: Part I. Experiments and observations. J. Mater. Res., Vol. 23, No. 9, p. 2429.
* D.J. Morris and R.F. Cook. Indentation fracture of low-dielectric constant films: Part II. Indentation fracture mechanics model. J. Mater. Res., Vol. 23, No. 9, p. 2443.

Media Contact: Michael Baum, baum@nist.gov, 301-975-2763

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NIST Guides Genetic Genealogy Labs Toward Improved Accuracy

y chromosomeAnyone who has watched crime dramas on TV knows that forensic scientists can use DNA “profiling” to identify people from evidence gathered at a crime scene, establish a paternity link or help free an innocent person who has been wrongly jailed. A lesser known but rapidly growing application of DNA profiling is tracing a person’s paternal ancestry—a process known as genetic genealogy. The laboratories performing this testing often differ in their results, making data comparison between labs difficult and casting doubt on reported genetic matches. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently published a paper* with recommendations for genealogy testing that they hope will improve the accuracy and reliability of the product.

A man’s paternal lineage can be traced using the DNA on his Y chromosome (Y-DNA), which, like many European surnames, passes from father to son. DNA profiling provides a genetic path that follows the surname through the years. Women who wish to know their ancestry can ask their father, brother, paternal uncle or paternal grandfather to take the test for them.

Genetic genealogy works by studying the sequences of repeating nucleotide (the base components of DNA) patterns on the Y chromosome known as short tandem repeats (STRs). Each STR is considered a separate marker for potential genetic matching because the number of times it is repeated will be the same for related males. For example, a person may have one STR sequence that repeats 12 times, another 11 times, a third 17 times and so on. If another male has a Y chromosome with a high percentage of the same STRs, it is considered likely that they share a common ancestor. Accurately counting the number of repeats is a tricky task and the source of much of the error in genetic genealogy tests, causing genealogists to make incorrect matches or miss family connections altogether.

In their paper, the NIST researchers explain the basis for the differing interpretations and recommend a solution using the agency’s certified reference material for human Y-chromosome DNA profiling (Standard Reference Material 2395), a collection of Y-STR markers that can serve as a means for genetic labs to calibrate their testing equipment. The researchers “strongly encourage [SRM 2395’s] use to enable compatible and calibrated measurements to be made between different Y-STR testing laboratories.”

Their sentiment is echoed by an editorial in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy that says of the NIST paper, “The advantages of having industry-wide standards are compelling for both buyers and sellers of genetic genealogy services.”

* J.M. Butler, M.C. Kline and A.E. Decker. Addressing Y-chromosome short tandem repeat (Y-STR) allele nomenclature. J. Genetic Genealogy 4:125-148 (2008).

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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Wherefore a Leap Second?

The spin of the Earth is slowing down. Not by much; only about 0.002 seconds a day (it varies), relative to our modern definition of the second. The varying rotation of the Earth is due to the cumulative effect of friction from the ocean's tides, the Moon’s orbital momentum, snow (and the lack thereof) at the polar ice caps, the 23-degree tilt of the Earth, the atmosphere, solar wind, space dust and magnetic storms. In any case, the Earth does not rotate exactly once every 24 hours (or 86,400 seconds).

This fact was of little consequence and went unnoticed until the highly accurate atomic clocks developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and others around the world arrived on the timekeeping scene in the late 1960s. Thanks to precise measurements of the position of the Earth relative to the stars made possible by the atomic clock, the Earth’s rotation was found to be gradually slowing down. But the miniscule slowing of the rotation is not the primary reason for adding a leap second. The definition of the second itself—and its cumulative measurement of minutes, hours and days—does not match the Earth’s rotation.

Rather than periodically changing the definition of the second to match the Earth (as had been done prior to the era when the definition of the second was tied to atomic clocks), it was decided by international agreement in 1972 that operators of atomic clocks around the world adjust the time of day by adding one second to the world’s official time when needed. This keeps Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in sync with astronomical time—that being the position of the sun above the Earth—and the leap second was born.

When the Earth gets sufficiently out of sync with UTC, based on observations from the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) in Paris, a leap second is scheduled. After several months notice, the leap second is added at 18:59.59 Eastern Time (corresponding to 23:59.59 at the zero median in Greenwich, England) on either Dec. 31 or June 30. This year, New Year’s Eve celebrations in the United States won’t feel a thing because the adjustment is made just before 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Those interested can watch the leap second occur by logging on to www.time.gov before midnight, London time, and clicking on their time zone.

There have been 24 leap seconds added since the practice was begun in 1972, the last being in December 2005. No special adjustments need be made by us humans because most of the gadgets we use—computers, cell phones, GPS units, etc.—adjust themselves automatically.

So yes, 2008 will be a little longer than normal this year. But not so much that you’ll be embarrassingly early to that New Year’s Eve party.

Media Contact: James Burrus, james.burrus@nist.gov, 303-497-4789

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'New and Improved' Baldrige Criteria Now Available

The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence—described by one industry CEO as “probably the single most influential document in the modern history of American business”—serves both as the standard for selecting the annual recipients of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and the road map for organizations worldwide seeking improved operations through innovation and performance excellence. The three editions of the 2009-2010 Criteria—for Business/Nonprofit, Health Care and Education—are now available for downloading* at http://baldrige.nist.gov.

The most significant revisions to the criteria are:

  • An increased focus on customer (or patient/stakeholder or student/stakeholder) engagement. With the improved Criteria, organizations can better assess their ability to deliver relevant programs, services and products, develop a customer culture, and listen to the “voice of the customer.”
  • An enhanced emphasis on core competencies that stresses their importance to an organization’s mission, strategy and sustainability.
  • A new consideration of societal responsibilities that explores how organizations contribute to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of themselves and their community.


Over 10 million copies of the criteria have been distributed since the first Baldrige Award cycle in 1988, and about 2 million copies are downloaded annually. Seven categories make up the criteria: leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; and results.

Named after Malcolm Baldrige, the 26th Secretary of Commerce, the Baldrige Award was established by Congress in 1987 to enhance the competitiveness and performance of U.S. businesses. The award is not given for specific products or services. Since 1988, 75 organizations have received Baldrige Awards.

The Baldrige program is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the private sector.

* Paper copies of the criteria will be mailed if requested from nqp@nist.gov or by calling (301) 975-2036.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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NIST Seeks White Papers on Critical National Needs

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is interested in detailed pitches for critical national and societal needs that could be the basis for new competitions for research funding under its Technology Innovation Program (TIP).

TIP promotes innovation in the United States through cost-shared funding for high-risk, high-reward research projects by single small-sized or medium-sized businesses or by joint ventures that also may include institutions of higher education, nonprofit research organizations and national laboratories. Competitions for TIP funding target large national and societal needs that arguably could be addressed or reduced through a program of high-risk, transformational research. The first TIP competition in 2008 sought new technologies for inspecting, monitoring and evaluating critical components of the nation’s roadways, bridges, and drinking and wastewater systems.

In a Federal Register notice posted on Dec. 16,* NIST asked interested parties to submit “white papers” describing an area of critical national need and the associated societal challenge and explain how those needs might be addressed through potential technological developments that fit the TIP profile of high-risk, high-reward R&D. The white papers, along with the input from NIST, the TIP Advisory Board, other government agencies, the technical communities and other stakeholders, will be incorporated into the TIP competition planning process.

NIST announced that, while it is accepting papers in any topic area of concern to the submitter, it is particularly interested in white papers that would help further refine several topic areas now under consideration, including:

  • Civil Infrastructure—for example, construction technologies or advanced materials for transportation or for water distribution and flood control;
  • Complex networks and complex systems—for example new theory or mathematical tools to enable better understanding and control of the complex networks that have evolved for energy delivery, telecommunications, transportation and finance;
  • Energy—technologies that address emerging alternative energy sources;
  • Water—technologies that address growing needs for fresh water supplies and ensure the safety of water and food supplies from contamination;
  • Manufacturing—for example, advanced manufacturing technologies that have shorter innovation cycles, more flexibility, and are rapidly reconfigurable;
  • Nanomaterials and nanotechnology—for example technologies that enable the scale-up of nanomaterials and nanodevices from lab prototypes to commercial manufacturing;
  • Personalized Medicine—for example, advances in proteomics and genomics that could enable doctors to select optimal drug treatments and dosages based on the patient’s unique genetics, physiology, and metabolic processes; and
  • Sustainable Chemistry—for example, novel, advanced process chemistries and technologies that are inherently safer and cleaner while creating products and processes with attributes superior to conventional methods.


White papers can be submitted to meet several due dates, including: Jan. 15, 2009, March 9, 2009, May 11, 2009, and July 13, 2009. White papers may be mailed to: National Institute of Standards and Technology, Technology Innovation Program, 100 Bureau Drive, Stop 4750, Gaithersburg, MD 20899-4750, Attention:  Critical National Needs Ideas, or may be emailed to tipwhitepaper@nist.gov.

The white papers are expected to contain: a description of an area of critical national need and the associated societal challenge, why government support is needed, the consequences of inaction and a high level discussion of potential technical solutions, and the audience for such a competition. They should not include specific project proposals. Detailed instructions on preparing TIP white papers may be read at “A Guide for Preparing and Submitting White Papers on Areas of Critical National Need.” Detailed discussion of the seven areas of particular interest is in the Federal Register notice “Technology Innovation Program (TIP) Seeks White Papers.”

* Federal Register, Vol. 73, No. 242, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008, p. 76339.

Media Contact: Michael Baum, baum@nist.gov, 301-975-3097

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Quicklinks

NIST Posts 51 Entries for New Hash Algorithm Competition

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced the first-round candidates for its open cryptographic competition to select a new state-of-the-art “hash algorithm”—to be known as SHA-3—that will be added to government standards for securing digital signatures and other applications. (See “NIST Issues Call for a New ‘Hash’ Algorithm,” Tech Beat, Nov.8, 2007.) Out of 64 submissions received by this past fall’s deadline for the competition, NIST found 51 entries to be “complete and proper” and has posted those candidates on the competition Web site. Since the candidates have been posted, three of their submitters have conceded that their algorithms are broken. This and other information on the algorithms is being regularly updated on the competition Web site, which welcomes public comments on the entries. Submitters of the first-round candidates are invited to present their submissions at a conference in February. By 2012, NIST plans to hold two more conferences to narrow down the candidates and decide upon the finalist. The first-round candidates have been posted at NIST’s Computer Security Resource Center.

Media Contact: Ben Stein, ben.stein@nist.gov, 301-975-3097

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JILA Story Makes Physics 'Top Ten' List

The creation of the first high-density gas of ultracold molecules by scientists at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been selected as one of the “top ten” physics news stories of the year by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) along with a related experiment at the University of Innsbruck.

“Ultracold polar molecules really represent now one of the hottest frontiers in physics,” NIST/JILA Fellow Jun Ye, an author of the paper, observed at the time. “They are potentially a new form of matter, a quantum gas with strong interactions that vary by direction and that you can control using external tools such as electric fields.”

Read the AIP release at: www.aip.org/pnu/2008/split/879-1.html and the original NIST news release, “JILA scientists create first dense gas of ultracold ’polar’ molecules.”

Media Contact: Laura Ost, laura.ost@nist.gov, 303-497-4880

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Two NIST Physicists Win 2007 PECASE Honors

Two physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have won Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the nation’s highest honor for the most promising young researchers. The White House announced the 2007 awards on Dec. 19.

The NIST winners are William Rippard, who has created new forms of electronic devices based on the “spin” of electrons, and Raymond Simmonds, a leader in the field of quantum information science, who is conducting research on potentially powerful computer designs based on quantum physics. Rippard and Simmonds both work at NIST laboratories in Boulder, Colo.

PECASE was established in 1996. NIST is among eight federal departments and agencies that annually nominate scientists and engineers whose work shows exceptional promise. Winners receive up to five years of funding to further their research in support of critical government missions.

For further information, see “White House Announces 2007 Awards for Early Career Scientists and Engineers.”

Media Contact: Laura Ost, laura.ost@nist.gov, 303-497-4880

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