Research Picks – June 2017

Digital forensic first

Cybercriminals, hackers and others with malicious intent in the digital world often create temporary accounts on websites, social media, email, and other systems. Once they have completed their nefarious activities, they might delete the account and assume no trace remains for any subsequent criminal investigations. However, the emerging science of digital forensics now has a new tool for analyzing seized computer equipment that can patch together details of such deleted accounts from computer event logs, registry hives, deleted file traces on hard drives and in the case of a computer that has not been powered down, even the random access memory (RAM), hibernation files and virtual memory.

Al-Saleh, M.I. and Al-Shamaileh, M.J. (2017) ‘Forensic artefacts associated with intentionally deleted user accounts’, Int. J. Electronic Security and Digital Forensics, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp.167–179.

What a waste

Waste lubricating oil from vehicles is an important component of automotive waste, toxic and highly polluting regional, national and international laws are in place to ensure its safe processing and disposal. One of the major problems of spent lubricating oil collected from automotive mechanics and other vehicle maintenance businesses is that not only is the organic component noxious, but metal ions accumulate in use. Regulators can easily use chemical analysis to determine what metals are commonly present in waste oils before they are further processed or disposed of, including calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, and zinc, for instance. Standard waste oil processing technology available in the developing world can produce a material that is efficient and within safety limits.

Habibu, U. (2017) ‘Recycling and characterisation of spent lubricating oil’, Int. J. Environment and Waste Management, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp.181–190.

Low mercurial risk

Despite tabloid media stories, some environmental risks are not as great as activists and scaremongers would have us believe. A positive story from Australia reveals that although anthropogenic mercury is present in the environment it is not accumulating on east coast beaches (Newcastle and Sydney) where people often enjoy their leisure time at levels considered harmful or risky to growing children. Even those beaches in close proximity to waste mercury sources were well below daily risk levels, according to a new study.

Macsween, K., Tang, C., Edwards, G.C., Gan, T., Tran, S., Geremia, S., Campbell, J. and Howard, D. (2017) ‘Sampling of total mercury in sand on Sydney beaches and assessment of risk of exposure to children’, Int. J. Environment and Health, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp.120–138.

Fractal Mondrian

Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was a contributor to the De Stijl art movement and developed his own unique non-representational form which he called neoplasticism. Intriguingly, two of his paintings seem to have a fractal dimension to the trees represented in those paintings, according to a new analysis. Given that theory of fractals in nature is a relatively new topic, pre-dating Mondrian’s art by a century or so, it is interesting that he should have homed in on this natural order in his work. The finding supports the hypothesis that the beauty which exists in fractals may influence artists consciously or subconsciously. The two paintings in question are “The Red Tree” (1910) and “Farm near Duivendrecht” (1916). The research also looks at the fractal nature of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings of the 1940s, although their structure is generated by an entirely different artistic technique.

Bountis, T., Fokas, A.S. and Psarakis, E.Z. (2017) ‘Fractal analysis of tree paintings by Piet Mondrian (1872–1944)’, Int. J. Arts and Technology, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp.27–42.

Material definition of humanity

We define human history through the materials we use: the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age. Perhaps we now live in the plastic age. The next epoch may well be the nanocomposite age. Art and architecture, transport and healthcare, the industrial revolution, the electronics revolution, and beyond all depend on materials and the formulation of novel materials in particular for their evolution.

Writing in the International Journal of Nuclear Knowledge Management, Ganesh Surwase and B.S. Kademani of the Scientific Information Resource Division, at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, in Mumbai, India, discuss the evolution of materials chemistry through a survey of almost 70000 research papers in the Scopus database published from the years 2008 to 2012.

The researchers have looked at annual growth of papers and citations, the distribution of sources of papers and citations at the international and national levels. They have also looked at publication efficiency index and activity index, the distribution of papers by institution and by which are the preferred journals in which such papers appear.

“Materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving the properties of matter and its applications to various areas of science and engineering,” the team says. “This scientific field investigates the relationship between the structure of materials at atomic or molecular scales and their macroscopic properties. It incorporates elements of applied physics and chemistry.”

The team reports exponential growth of the scientific literature across materials science. Almost 70000 papers were published in the field receiving almost half a million citations. Asian countries lead the way in terms of numbers of papers published followed by Europe and North America with China the most prolific nation, followed by the USA, Japan, Germany, India, and South Korea.

Surwase, G. and Kademani, B.S. (2017) ‘Global research trends in materials chemistry: a scientometric perspective’, Int. J. Nuclear Knowledge Management, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp.58–71.

Weaponizing the internet for terrorism

Terrorism is a fact of life (and death) as are the collectives and networks to which counter-terrorism organizations and the media have given various labels and names. These networks are well versed in exploiting modern information technology through social media awareness, marketing and recruitment campaigns. However, there is the more insidious use by terrorists groups of online networks and exploits in the creation of so-called bots (computers that have been compromised through the implementation of malware and control over which has been assumed by a third party, or more likely a third party control a lot array of such bots in a botnet.

Writing in the International Journal of Collaborative Intelligence, Emmanuel Ogu of the Department of Computer Science, at Babcock University, in Ilishan-Remo, Ogun State, Nigeria, and colleagues suggest that the problems caused by botnets in terms of interfering with infrastructure, healthcare services, transport, power supply and other critical parts of the modern world are not very different to those caused by the more familiar notion of terrorist attacks involving explosives and weapons. Events across the globe in mid-May 2017 saw the rapid and devastating spread of so-called ransomware to hospitals, companies, organizations, and individuals. Whether or not this was a specific attack by a particular group is irrelevant the impact was enormous on those waiting for healthcare attention, for instance.

A similar “attack” on an even bigger scale might see power supply outages brought about by malware-toting botnets operated by those with malicious intent where there is no simple financial extortion, rather crippling and even physically destroying infrastructure is the aim of the perpetrators.

“Fighting bots and keeping them away from network infrastructures has gradually become the nightmare of every network security professional,” the team says. Fundamentally, this is because although individual computers may be wiped of malware and systems patches or a botnet disabled, the distributed and infectious nature of the computer viruses, worms and other malware that propagate the controls with which the “botmaster” will rally the compromised computers are always being modified to counteract antivirus software. The researchers warn that research shows we are not too far away from a new wave of insurgency and terrorism that may gradually overtake the internet and many organizational network infrastructures around the world.

“Just as the secret to dismantling terrorist networks have been proven to lie in destroying the ability of the terror group to recruit, train, control and coordinate their activities (essentially by completely taking out their command and control infrastructure), the secret to ridding the internet of botnets, perhaps, also depends on similar means,” the team suggests. “Intelligence reports are useless if they do not lead to informed decisions and actions,” they add. Warnings of out of date operating systems, web browsers and email programs, unpatched computers, and the non-implementation of firewalls and antivirus software seem to be unheeded in too many cases. If those warnings are left unheeded by the users of infrastructure critical computers in healthcare, transportation, industry, power supply other areas, then the inherent vulnerabilities might be exploited by those with malicious intent repeatedly whether for financial gain, terrorist propaganda and control or both.

Ogu, E.C., Ogu, M.I. and Ogu, C. (2016) ‘Insights from terrorism intelligence and eradication efforts – Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram – for more pragmatic botnet countermeasures’, Int. J. Collaborative Intelligence, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp.258–274.