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May 18 2013

May 20, 2013

18May2013

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Bank security weaknesses led to cyber looting of $45M from ATMs

Indicted cyber thieves used pre-paid debit cards, maniulated bank accounts to withdraw huge sums from ATMs around the world

Jaikumar Vijayan

May 10, 2013 (Computerworld)

 

Alberto Yusi Lajud Pena, found dead in the Dominican Republic two weeks ago, was the leader of the New York cell of an international gang of cyber thieves that authorities allege stole a staggering $45 million from ATM machines around the world.

One startling aspect of the case, sure to be closely reviewed by banks worldwide, is that Pena and his cohorts pull off the theft quickly using just 17 prepaid debit cards.

Federal prosecutors in New York on Thursday handed down indictments against Pena and seven other individuals on cyber hacking charges related to the theft. The defendants allegedly formed a New York-based cell of an international group that hacked into global financial institutions to access prepaid debit card data that they later used to steal money from ATM machines.

Pena and his co-conspirators are accused of withdrawing about $2.8 million from ATMs in NYC on two separate occasions.

In the first operation last Dec. 22, the gang withdrew $400,000 in 750 fraudulent transactions at 140 ATM locations in the city in just two hours and 25 minutes. In February, the gang withdrew close to $2.4 million in 3,000 ATM transactions in the NYC area over a 10-hour period.

Details of the operation contained in court documents provide a fascinating look both at the sophisticated methods used by the hackers, and the vulnerabilities in the banking system that allowed it to happen.

The thefts began with an extensive intrusion last December into the network of an Indian credit card processing company that handles MasterCard and Visa prepaid debit cards.

Such cards are typically loaded with a finite amount of funds and are often used by employers in lieu of paychecks and by charitable organizations to distribute emergency assistance, according to a statement by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The hackers broke into the card processing company, manipulated account balances and eliminated withdrawal limits on each of five prepaid MasterCard debit cards issued by the National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates.

Such manipulation of debit card information is referred to as “unlimited operation” in the cyber underworld and requires a very high degree of technical sophistication, according to the indictment. When successful, even a small number of compromised cards can lead to a “tremendous financial loss the victim financial institution,” the indictment said.

The compromised account numbers, together with PINs needed to initiate withdrawals, were distributed to cell ‘managers’ like Pena in different parts of the world. The stolen account numbers were used to encode magnetic stripes on the back plastic cards such as gift cards and hotel key cards and later used to initiate the fraudulent withdrawals.

 

The first operation, in Dec. 2012, resulted in close to $5 million being withdrawn from ATM machines around the world in about 5,700 transactions. The hackers who had broken into the card processor network used their access to monitor the withdrawals to ensure they were not shortchanged.

In February, the group pulled off the same caper, but this time by breaking into a U.S.-based credit card processor that handles MasterCard and Visa prepaid debit card transactions.

In this instance, the hackers manipulated account balances and removed withdrawal limits on 12 prepaid debit cards issued by the Bank of Muscat in Oman. The compromised account numbers were distributed to gang members in 24 countries and used to create spoofed debit cards that were used to withdraw $40 million from ATM machines.

Members of Pena’s gang were identified and nabbed from surveillance tapes provided by financial institutions and by owners of the ATM machines that were robbed.

The thefts highlight continuing vulnerabilities in the payment industry said Jim Stickley, chief technology officer at TraceSecurity Inc., a Baton Rogue, La.-based company risk and compliance management vendor with several banking customers.

Stickley said that no mechanisms appear to have existed to prevent the same debit card numbers from being used over and over again to complete thousands of transactions in different countries in a very short period of time.

“It’s surprising that even some level of analytics wasn’t used,” to spot and prevent fraudulent transactions, he said. “When they were hitting 3,000 ATMs around the world at the same time, you’d think there’d be some analytics” to detect it, he said.

It’s likely that the banks did not have monitoring systems in place to track prepaid debit cards. There’s little chance that the bacnk would know who purchased such cards. There’s little risk to the bank with such cards, because they have already been paid for, Stickley said.

“They probably treated it somewhat differently because there is no way they can call somebody to tell them they are shutting it down,” he said. “I can see how they might have never imagined a situation where someone would use the cards in this manner.”

Avivah Litan an analyst with Gartner, added that the theft “could have been prevented with simple steps like privileged user monitoring and alerts when account limits are raised in this manner.” Accounts limits had to be raised substantially for the crooks to get so much money she said.

Strengthening authorization on raising account limits is one way to mitigate such issues she said.

Banks, for example, can enforce dual authorization whenever someone wants to raise accounts limits in the manner that needed to have been done in this case, she said.

PIN and Chip cards could also have prevented the heist, she said. Chip-and-PIN systems use smartcards that have embedded microprocessors (or chips) rather than magnetic stripes to store cardholder data.

To use the cards at an ATM machine a cardholder needs to have the original and personal identification number. “There simply wasn’t enough attention paid to simple controls that should have been put on these systems,” Litan said

“The only good news here is that consumers weren’t hurt. The bad news is that the payment industry still has not learned its lesson,” she said. “The industry needs to implement a major change in the way cardholders are authenticated, either using chip and PIN, biometrics, or something else much stronger than a PIN.”

 

 

Smartphones driving violent crime across U.S.

An IDG News Service investigation finds guns and knives are used in a quarter of all robberies of cellphones in San Francisco

By Martyn Williams

May 10, 2013 05:22 PM ET

IDG News Service – On Feb. 27 in the middle of the afternoon, a 16-year-old girl was walking through San Francisco’s Mission district when she was ordered at gun point to hand over her cellphone. The robbery was one of 10 serious crimes in the city that day, and they all involved cellphones. Three were stolen at gun point, three at knife point and four through brute force.

Incidents of cellphone theft have been rising for several years and are fast becoming an epidemic. IDG News Service collected data on serious crimes in San Francisco from November to April and recorded 579 thefts of cellphones or tablets, accounting for 41 percent of all serious crime. On several days, like Feb. 27, the only serious crimes reported in the daily police log were cellphone thefts.

In just over half the incidents, victims were punched, kicked or otherwise physically intimidated for their phones, and in a quarter of robberies, users were threatened with guns or knives.

This isn’t just happing in tech-loving San Francisco, either. The picture is similar across the United States.

In Washington, D.C., cellphone thefts account for 40 percent of robberies, while in New York City they make up more than half of all street crime. There are no hard numbers on which phones are most popular, but those most in demand by thieves appear to be those most in demand by users: iPhones.

It’s easy to see why the thefts are so rampant. Criminals can quickly turn stolen phones into several hundred dollars in cash, and phone users are often easy targets as they walk down the street engrossed in the screen and oblivious to their surroundings.
It shouldn’t be this way. With built-in satellite positioning and reliance on a network connection, it should be easier to track them down. So why is theft still such a problem?

A big reason is that, until recently, there had been little to stop someone using a stolen cellphone. Carriers quickly suspend phone lines to avoid thieves running up high charges, but the handset itself could be resold and reused. It’s made easier by modern smartphones that accept SIM cards, which were introduced to allow legitimate users to switch phones easily.

Reacting to pressure from law enforcement and regulators, the U.S.’s largest cellphone carriers agreed early last year to establish a database of stolen cellphones. The database blocks the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number, a unique ID in the cellphone akin to a car’s VIN (vehicle identification number). The number is transmitted to the cellular network when the phone connects and remains with the phone no matter what SIM card is inserted.

In theory, once added to the list, a phone cannot be activated on any U.S. carrier network. But the system is not perfect. For it to work, phone users must notify their carrier of the theft and in some cases provide the IMEI themselves. There are also limitations to its scope.

 

 

Cyberattacks Against U.S. Corporations Are on the Rise

By DAVID E. SANGER and NICOLE PERLROTH

NYTimes

May 12, 2013

 

WASHINGTON — A new wave of cyberattacks is striking American corporations, prompting warnings from federal officials, including a vague one issued last week by the Department of Homeland Security. This time, officials say, the attackers’ aim is not espionage but sabotage, and the source seems to be somewhere in the Middle East.

The targets have primarily been energy companies, and the attacks appeared to be probes, looking for ways to seize control of their processing systems. The attacks are continuing, officials said. But two senior administration officials said Sunday that they were still not certain exactly where the attacks were coming from, or whether they were state-sponsored or the work of hackers or criminals.

“We are concerned by these intrusions, and we are trying to make sure they don’t lead to something much bigger, as they did in the Saudi case,” said one senior American official. He was referring to the aggressive attack last summer that affected 30,000 computers at Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s largest oil producers. After lengthy investigations, American officials concluded that Iran had been behind the Saudi Aramco attack.

Another official said that in the new wave of attacks, “most everything we have seen is coming from the Middle East,” but he did not say whether Iran, or another country, appeared to be the source.

Last week’s warning was unusual because most attacks against American companies — especially those coming from China — have been attempts to obtain confidential information, steal trade secrets and gain competitive advantage. By contrast, the new attacks seek to destroy data or to manipulate industrial machinery and take over or shut down the networks that deliver energy or run industrial processes.

That kind of attack is much more like the Stuxnet worm that the United States and Israel secretly used against Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants several years ago, to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. When that covert program began, President Obama, among other officials, expressed worry that its eventual discovery could prompt retaliatory attacks.

Two senior officials who have been briefed on the new intrusions say they were aimed largely at the administrative systems of about 10 major American energy firms, which they would not name. That is similar to what happened to Saudi Aramco, where a computer virus wiped data from office computers, but never succeeded in making the leap to the industrial control systems that run oil production.

The Washington Post first reported the security warning on Friday. Over the weekend the Obama administration described what had led to the warning. Those officials began describing the activity as “probes that suggest someone is looking at how to take control of these systems.”

According to one United States official, Homeland Security officials decided to release the warning once they saw how deeply intruders had managed to penetrate corporate systems, including one that deals with chemical processes. In the past, the government occasionally approached individual companies it believed were under threat. Last week’s warning “is an effort to make sure that the volume and timeliness of the information improves,” in line with a new executive order signed by the president, one senior official said.

 

The warning was issued by an agency called ICS-Cert, which monitors attacks on computer systems that run industrial processes. It said the government was “highly concerned about hostility against critical infrastructure organizations,” and included a link to a previous warning about Shamoon, the virus used in the Saudi Aramco attack last year. It also hinted that federal investigations were under way, referring to indications “that adversary intent extends beyond intellectual property to include use of cyber to disrupt business and control systems.”

At Saudi Aramco, the virus replaced company data on thousands of computers with an image of a burning American flag. The attack prompted the defense secretary at the time, Leon E. Panetta, to warn of an impending “cyber 9/11” if the United States did not respond more efficiently to attacks. American officials have since concluded the attack and a subsequent one at RasGas, the Qatari energy company, were the work of Iranian hackers. Israeli officials, who follow Iran closely, said in interviews this month that they thought the attacks were the work of Iran’s new “cybercorps,” organized after the cyberattacks that affected their nuclear facilities.

Saudi Aramco said that while the attackers had attempted to penetrate its oil production systems, they had failed because the company maintained a separation between employees’ administrative computers and the computers used to control and monitor production. RasGas said the attack on its computers had failed for the same reason.

But there are no clear standards for computer security, and the Homeland Security warning last week urged companies to take steps many computer professionals already advise. The suggestions were for “things most everyone should be doing on an everyday basis,” said Dan McWhorter, the managing director of threat intelligence at Mandiant Corporation. His company conducted a study this year that identified a specific unit of the Chinese Army as the source of a number of attacks on American businesses and government organizations. “These are all threats people have been seeing coming for some time,” he said.

Still, the warning underscored that most of the likely targets in the United States, including cellphone networks and electric utility grids, are in private rather than government hands. “The challenge will be managing our nation’s offensive and defensive capabilities,” said Evan D. Wolff, a partner at Hunton & Williams, who runs the firm’s homeland security practice and focuses on cyberissues. “Unlike conventional weapons, this will require a very broad engagement across the private sector.”

For the last four years, the Department of Homeland Security has said it needs to expand its cybersecurity force by as many as 600 hacking specialists to keep pace with the rising number of threats. But in the last four months, the department has been grappling with an exodus of top officials, including Jane Holl Lute, the agency’s deputy secretary; Mark Weatherford, the department’s top cybersecurity official; Michael Locatis, the assistant secretary for cybersecurity; and Richard Spires, the agency’s chief information officer, all of whom resigned.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Nicole Perlroth from San Francisco. Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting from Washington.

 

Better batteries could revolutionize solar, wind power

USAToday

Wendy Koch, USA TODAY11:33 p.m. EDT May 12, 2013

On an arid mountain in Eureka County, Nev., a mining company believes it’s struck the 21st century equivalent of gold.

The precious commodity is vanadium, a metal that can be extracted from shale rock and used to make powerful, long-lasting batteries for cars, homes and utilities.

If Vancouver-based American Vanadium gets federal approval for its proposed Gibellini Hill Project — a 30-day public comment period ends May 29 — it will operate the only vanadium mine in the United States.

Eureka, indeed! The battle to build a better battery is intensifying as the United States and other countries, faced with growing global demand for electricity and a need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change, look to expand carbon-free renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Batteries are key. They can directly power electric cars and buses and, indirectly, homes and big buildings by storing solar and wind power for times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. They balance out renewables that produce energy intermittently so consumers can power up laptops or run refrigerators 24/7.

The race is on. Universities, start-ups and major companies are working with new materials such as vanadium or tweaking the lithium-ion battery that Sony introduced more than 20 years ago for personal electronics. Some advances, like ones that Toyota and IBM are developing to power cars for 500-plus miles on a single charge, won’t make it to market for at least five years.

Others are making their debuts this year, including a battery by Ontario, Canada-based Electrovaya that enables homes with solar panels to go entirely off grid or one by General Electric that will be paired with a Texas wind farm to provide continuous power.

“It’s the dawn of the energy-storage age,” says Bill Radvak, president of American Vanadium, which is partnering with the German CellCube battery manufacturer Gildemeister. He says storage could be the “holy grail” for renewable energy. “There was no major battery market three years ago,” he says, adding that is changing quickly.

Mining company American Vanadium is partnering with German battery maker Gildemeister to bring powerful, long-lasting batteries such as the CellCube to the U.S. market. The CellCube is a flow battery that uses vanadium, a metal found in surface shale deposits.

In February, California, which mandates that 33% of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2020, required a Los Angeles-area utility to ensure some capacity comes from energy storage. On May 1, Germany, which is shuttering its nuclear power plants as it boosts renewables, began subsidizing homeowners’ purchases of batteries to store power from solar panels. China’s five-year plan calls for 5% of all electricity to be stored by 2020. In the United States, about 2% of electric capacity is pumped hydro storage, the most common form of energy storage.

The global market for storing power from solar panels is forecast to explode, from less than $200 million in 2012 to $19 billion by 2017, according to a report this month by IMS Research.

One factor driving this growth is the plummeting price of renewables, especially solar panels that have fallen at least 60% since the beginning of 2011. As a result, industry groups report historic growth as U.S. electric capacity from solar panels jumped 76% and from wind turbines, 28%, last year alone.

 

OBSTACLES AHEAD

Still, batteries face obstacles, including cost and safety. Lithium-ion batteries aboard two Boeing 787s jets failed in January, causing a fire on one and smoke on the other. In March, batteries from the same manufacturer caused problems in two Mitsubishi vehicles: a hybrid Outlander car overheated and an all-electric i-MiEV caught fire during testing at an assembly plant.

While the EV industry says these incidents are the exception rather than the rule, money has also been a problem. In October, Massachusetts-based A123 ,a lithium-ion battery manufacturer that spent $132 million in federal stimulus funds, filed for bankruptcy. In December, Wanxiang American, the U.S. arm of a Chinese automotive parts giant, bought A123’s technology.

Toyota’s Jaycie Chitwood said lithium-ion batteries are just too expensive to make electric cars cost competitive without subsidies. Speaking at the Advanced Energy 2013 conference last month in New York City, she said Toyota is expanding its line of electric vehicles to meet the U.S. government’s fuel-efficiency targets — not because they’re profitable. She said it gives a $14,000 discount for each new electric RAV4.

 

Chitwood said a major battery advance is needed. Toyota is working on several alternatives, including cheaper, longer-range batteries that use magnesium instead of lithium. Commercialization, though, is years away.

“Batteries continue to be a challenge,” especially those for electric vehicles, Esther Takeuchi,chemistry professor at SUNY Stony Brook, said at the same conference. “Things aren’t where we’d want them to be, but they’re getting closer.”

Her university and others, some with federal funding, are looking not only at new chemical mixes but also at nano-sizing the chemical elements — or making them microscopically small — to make them more efficient. Takeuchi said successful batteries often have specific applications, such as lead-acid ones for auto ignition or lithium-iodine for pacemakers. She said lithium-ion has worked well in cellphones and laptops, their initial use.

Batteries will improve “but not at the pace that we’ve seen in recent years,” writes Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, in his 2012 book, Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines. He says the growing demand for portable electronics sped the development of already-known battery technologies. He says it will take awhile to commercialize new ones such as lithium-air.

Batteries are just one of many ways to store grid-scale energy. The most common is pumped hydroelectric, in which water is sent to a reservoir and released later to run generators.

“Storage is the glue that can hold the grid together,” said Matthew Maroon of GE Energy. GE, which opened a $100 million factory in Schenectady, N.Y., to build a sodium nickel chloride battery, announced earlier this month that Invenergy will install its Brilliant wind turbine with Durathon batteries at a Texas wind farm later this year.

The U.S. government is promoting energy storage. In November, the Department of Energy announced grants for 23 R&D projects and picked Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., as the first national “innovation hub” for batteries and energy storage. Argonne will receive $120 million over five years for this work.

Batteries are getting particular attention, because they’re versatile. While pumped hydro facilities require lots of land and water and are meant for utility-scale projects, batteries can be used anywhere and are easily scalable so they can help power not only a car but a factory.

“Everyone’s finally realizing, ‘Hey, this works.’… It’s the key to the future,” says Brad Roberts of the Electricity Storage Association, an industry group. He says the industry’s hiccups are part of its growth and adds: “I don’t see any hesitation on the part of venture capitalists.”

 

ALTERNATIVES IN THE WORKS

IBM’s Allan Schurr is bullish on his company’s new lithium-air battery, which takes in oxygen from the air to form a chemical reaction that generates an electric charge. It’s lighter and denser than the lithium-ion ones in most of today’s electric vehicles, which use heavy metal oxides to drive the chemical reactions that produce power.

“The performance we’ve seen in tests so far is at or above our expectations,” he says. With 500 miles on a single charge, he says, “You’d take the ‘range anxiety’ out of the equation.” The current Nissan Leaf gets up to 75 miles on a single charge, and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 62 miles. Schurr expects a prototype to be developed next year, but its commercial availability will take at least five years.

 

Toshiba has developed a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the SCiB, that has a new oxide-based material, lithium titanate, that allows quicker charging times. It’s used in the Honda Fit’s EV and Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV.

Huge lithium-ion batteries, filling 53-foot shipping containers, are being used for grid-scale projects. Since September 2011 on a ridge of Laurel Mountain in West Virginia, AES Storage has used them to store 64 megawatts of energy generated by windmills. That capacity, if it ran continuously, would be enough to power nearly 50,000 U.S. households for a year.

Batteries are also taking homes off the grid or providing back-up energy. SolarCity, a California-based solar installer, is piloting a back-up battery for some of its solar projects in California and may extend that option to other states this year. Minnesota-based Juhl Energy’s SolarBank system pairs solar panels with batteries. Detroit-based Nextek Power Systems offers a portable off-grid option that combines a solar panel with a battery.

Ontario-based Electrovaya plans to bring to the U.S. market this year a residential system, now being tested in Canada, that would install solar panels and a big-enough lithium-ion battery that homes could go completely off grid. Sankar Das Gupta, the company’s CEO, says it would cost less than $10,000 for an average-size home to add such a battery to a solar array.

“There’s no one battery technology that is one-size-fits-all,” says GE’s Maroon. He says each has its own advantages and disadvantages, adding: “The market is big enough for each technology to survive.”

American Vanadium says flow batteries that use vanadium last longer and are more powerful than lithium-ion ones, because they absorb and release huge amounts of energy quickly and can do so thousands of times. They can be used for grid-scale projects, and smaller lithium-vanadium batteries can power vehicles.

Radvak says if his project is approved, it could provide 5% of the world’s vanadium supply and help reduce battery costs. The Bureau of Land Management, which is examining the project and will hold a public meeting Tuesday in Eureka, says the mine could cause a loss of habitat for greater sage grouse and of acreage for livestock grazing.

“There is no mining operation that doesn’t have a consequence,” Radvak says. But he says the Eureka mine won’t involve moving lots of earth, because the vanadium is in surface deposits and can be simply leached with a sulfuric acid. “It’s a very low-risk project,” he says.

Radvak says while the U.S. has lagged behind other countries, notably Germany, on energy storage, he expects that in the long run, it will become the world’s leader.

 

GLOSSARY OF COMMON BATTERIES:

Batteries often work the same basic way even if they use different metals. They’re mini power plants that produce electricity by creating chemical reactions. As atoms move between two plates of different metals, via a chemical solution called an electrolyte, they produce voltage that is discharged through a metal wire on the other side.

• Lead-acid: (auto ignition). They have atoms pass from a plate of metallic lead through sulfuric acid to a plate of solid lead oxide.

• Lithium-ion (personal electronics, electric vehicles). They have carbon on one end and a metal oxide on the other, using lithium salt in an organic compound as the electrolyte in the middle.

• Lithium-air (still in development; possible uses include electric vehicles). They use lithium metal and oxygen as inputs at the two ends.

• Nickel-cadmium (portable electronics, electric vehicles). Their metal plates are nickel oxide hydroxide and cadmium.

• Sodium-sulfur (electric vehicles, grid-scale storage). A type of molten-salt battery, it’s made from liquid sodium and sulfur.

• Vanadium redox flow (grid-scale storage). They use vanadium, a metal named for Vanadis — the Scandinavian goddess of beauty and youth — in different oxidation states to store chemical energy for repeated use.

 

 

Microsoft Won’t Guarantee Buy-Not-Rent Office for Next Decade

– Gregg Keizer, Computerworld

From: http://www.cio.com

May 08, 2013

 

Microsoft yesterday took a swipe at long-time partner Adobe for the latter’s wholesale shift to rent-not-buy software subscriptions, and along the way seemed to promise it would continue to offer Office as old-school perpetual licenses for the next 10 years.

Today, however, Microsoft declined to put that in stone.

 

The newest versions of the suite, Office 2013 on Windows and Office for Mac 2011 on OS X, are available both as “perpetual” licenses — the traditional kind that customers pay for once and up-front, then use as long as they like — and via subscriptions through various Office 365 plans.

Microsoft will continue to offer both payment and licensing schemes, said Clint Patterson, director of communications for Office, in a Tuesday blog, rather than go all-in, as Adobe has, on subscriptions.

“Like Adobe, we think subscription software-as-a-service is the future,” Patterson wrote. “However, unlike Adobe, we think people’s shift from packaged software to subscription services will take time.”

That timeline, said Patterson, runs to “within a decade.” And during that span, Microsoft will keep selling perpetual licenses for Office.

“Within a decade, we think everyone will choose to subscribe because the benefits are undeniable,” Patterson argued. “In the meantime, we are committed to offering choice — premier software sold as a package and powerful services sold as a subscription.”
Not quite a promise — the phrase “within a decade” doesn’t guarantee a 10-year stretch — and Patterson did not set criteria Microsoft will use to determine when to ditch perpetual licenses.

In fact, when contacted today for confirmation, Microsoft denied Patterson’s comments were a decade-long guarantee. “We have not set a timeline for moving to subscription only,” a spokeswoman said in an email reply to questions. “We will continue to listen to customer feedback on how they want to get Office.”

If the company does stick with traditional licenses for 10 years, it would run counter to analysts’ expectations. In February, Paul DeGroot, principal at Pica Communications, a consulting firm that specializes in deciphering Microsoft’s licensing practices, predicted that within five years Microsoft will have dumped Software Assurance (SA), its annuity- and subscription-like add-on for enterprise licensing programs that guarantees customers rights to free future Office upgrades.

The death of SA would mean Microsoft had essentially shifted its focus to subscriptions. “I can see a time when Microsoft says, ‘The next edition of Office will be available only by subscription,'” DeGroot said at the time.

A five-year lifespan for perpetual licensing would mean, going by Microsoft’s usual three-year major release cycle, that it would offer traditional licenses for only the next upgrade, perhaps called Office 2016, but not the follow-up Office 2019.

Microsoft has thought about going subscription-only. In a February interview at a Morgan Stanley-hosted technology conference, Kurt DelBene, president of the Office division, was asked whether Office would move to the model. “I think it’s the one thing that we talk about a bunch and try to figure out exactly where it’s going,” DelBene said then. “I think we have aspirations that ultimately it might get there.”

Adobe’s shift to software-by-subscription was announced Tuesday, when it said that upgrades to the Create Suite bundle — PhotoShop is the best known of the CS applications — would only be offered to subscribers of what it’s called Creative Cloud. The current CS6 will continue to be sold and supported with bug fixes, but it will be the end of the line for those applications’ perpetual licensing model.

Patterson also claimed that a quarter of consumers buying the newest version of Office did so by subscribing to Office 365 Home Premium. He did not divulge the source of his data, but it may have been media reports of U.S. retail sales.

A month ago, Stephen Baker of the NPD Group said that Office 365 accounted for 25% of all Office retail unit sales in the U.S. since its introduction in late January.

 

“So, perhaps the shift is happening faster than we originally thought, and Adobe is helping blaze the trail,” Patterson said.

 

IRS, union mum on employees held accountable in ‘sin’ of political targeting

Washington Post

By Joe Davidson, Published: May 13

The targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service is not only “outrageous,” as President Obama said Monday, but it also might be a “deadly sin.”

At issue is the boiling scandal about the IRS singling out dozens of tea party and other conservative organizations for special attention of the most unwanted kind.

It’s worth noting that the IRS is one of Washington’s least political agencies, at least in terms of staffing. It has only two political appointees. The top one, the commissioner at the time of the targeting, was appointed by Republican George W. Bush.

Obama told a news conference that “if, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it. And they have to be held fully accountable.”

On Friday, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, called it “absolutely inappropriate and not the way we ought to do things.”

 

Her role in all of this could prove to be complex. She’s a career employee who was vigilant about not playing politics with IRS business, according to reporting by my colleague David A. Fahrenthold. Yet when she found out about and objected to the targeting in June 2011, it took almost a year before more general standards for auditing organizations were implemented.

Since Friday, the IRS has been like a turtle, withdrawing into a silent shell. The agency has not said whether anyone has been held accountable. The union representing IRS employees has been uncharacteristically quiet.

Obama and Lerner are right to call IRS targeting outrageous and inappropriate, but the deeds also could be sinful, at least under the commandments that govern the IRS.

The Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 lists actions that have been dubbed the “10 deadly sins.” The statute says the IRS commissioner “shall terminate the employment of any employee” if there is “a final administrative or judicial determination” of misconduct.

The 10 sins, as listed by the Government Accountability Office are:

1. Willful failure to obtain the required approval signatures on documents authorizing a seizure of a taxpayer’s home, personal belongings, or business assets.

2. Providing a false statement under oath with respect to a material matter involving a taxpayer or taxpayer representative.

3. Violating the rights protected under the Constitution or the civil rights established under six specifically identified laws with respect to a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or other employee of the IRS.

4. Falsifying or destroying documents to conceal mistakes made by any employee with respect to a matter involving a taxpayer or taxpayer representative.

5. Assault or battery of a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or employee of the IRS but only if there is a criminal conviction, or a final judgment by a court in a civil case, with respect to the assault or battery.

6. Violating the Internal Revenue Code, Department of the Treasury regulations, or policies of the IRS (including the Internal Revenue Manual) for the purpose of retaliating against, or harassing a taxpayer, taxpayer representative, or other employee of the IRS.

7. Willful misuse of the provisions of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code for the purpose of concealing information from a congressional inquiry.

8. Willful failure to file any return of tax required under the Internal Revenue Code on or before the date prescribed therefore (including any extensions), unless such failure is due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect.

9. Willful understatement of federal tax liability, unless such failure is due to reasonable cause and not to willful neglect.

10. Threatening to audit a taxpayer for the purpose of extracting personal gain or benefit.

 

Several experts, inside and outside of government, were contacted and none identified any other agency with such agency-specific and conduct-specific discipline in federal personnel law.

“The feeling was that the IRS needed specific prohibitions against abuse since it possesses powers over individual lives like no other agency has, or did at the time, and was abusing those powers in some cases,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who sponsored the “sins” amendment.

Potentially, targeting certain taxpayers could violate sins 3 and 6.

 

But who are the violators?

Lerner blamed “front-line people” during Friday’s conference call with reporters. In July 2010, according to the draft inspector general’s report: “Determinations Unit management requested its specialists to be on the lookout for Tea Party applications.” Perhaps “front-line people” includes unit management. Perhaps not. The IRS isn’t saying.

In cases like these, there’s often the suspicion that front-line or lower-level workers will be forced to take the fall for higher-ups. Labor organizations can play an important role in protecting employees from being unfairly disciplined while management slides.

So far, the National Treasury Employees Union, which generally is not shy with public comment, has next to nothing to say about that or anything else.

“NTEU is working to get the facts but does not have any specifics at this time. Moreover, IRS employees are not permitted to discuss taxpayer cases. We cannot comment further at this time,” NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said via e-mail.

A call to the NTEU office in Cincinnati resulted in a similar response: “We’ve been directed by national office. We have no comment.”

Somebody needs to say something soon.

 

Salt Levels In Processed Foods Still Too High

LiveScience.com

By Rachael Rettner, MyHealthNewsDaily Senior Writer | LiveScience.com

May 13, 2013

Despite recent calls for food manufacturers to cut back on salt in their products, sodium levels in processed and restaurant foods have changed little in recent years, a new study suggests.

The study, conducted by the advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest, reviewed the sodium content of 402 processed foods sold at supermarkets, and 78 fast foods sold at chain restaurants.

Between 2005 and 2011, the sodium content of processed foods declined, on average, by 3.5 percent, and the sodium content of fast foods increased by 2.6 percent. Both of these changes were so small that they could have been due to chance, said study researcher Dr. Stephen Havas, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Currently, 9 in 10 Americans eat too much salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The government recommends people limit their salt intake to 2,300 milligrams per day. (For those who are 51 years or older, African-American, have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney diseases, the recommendation is 1,500 mg per day.)

“That’s nearly impossible for people to do right now, given how much salt is in restaurant and processed foods,” Havas said. The average American takes in about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Too much sodium in the diet raises blood pressure, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, the CDC says.

Overall, the amount of salt we consume from processed and fast foods needs to decline by at least 50 percent to have benefits for people’s health, Havas said. (Most of the salt we consume is through processed and fast foods, and not from a salt shaker, the researchers say.)

The new findings suggest that change happens too slowly when the food industry is asked to voluntarily reduce the sodium content of its foods, Havas said. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration should take steps to limit the amount of sodium allowed in different categories of food, he said.

 

High sodium foods

Some of the saltiest foods in the study were smoked bacon (1,803 mg of sodium per 100-gram serving), Caesar salad dressing (1,079 mg) and hot dogs (927 mg).

And a fast food meal of chicken strips and fries contained, on average, 1,239 mg of salt in 2011.

The study did not include products labeled as low sodium or sodium-free because the intent of the study was to focus on regular foods that had ample opportunity to reduce sodium levels between 2005 and 2011.

The researchers found wide variation in sodium levels in fast food. For instance, a medium serving of Burger King french fries had nearly twice the sodium as a medium serving of MacDonald’s french fries (670 mg versus 270 mg per 100 g serving).

“Examples like those demonstrate that many companies could easily lower sodium levels and still have highly marketable food,” the researchers wrote in the May issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Some companies have made commitments to lower sodium in the coming years. For instance, MacDonald’s says it will cut the sodium content of its whole menu 15 percent by 2015. But, Havas said, even if companies follow through with these commitments, they are still not enough.

 

Salt controversy

Not all studies have been able to find benefits of a reduced salt diet. A review published in 2011 found that moderate reductions in salt in the diet lowered blood pressure, but did not reduce participants’ risk of having heart disease or dying.

In a 2012 interview, Dr. Robert J. Myerburg, a professor of cardiology and physiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that for people with heart failure and high blood pressure, lowering salt intake has clear benefits, but for people in the general population, it’s less clear what the right level of salt is.

But people should be reasonable about how much salt they consume, Myerburg said, and the current guidelines are a reasonable recommendation, he said.

In an editorial accompanying the new study, Dr. Mitchell Katz of the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that government regulation of salt content may be difficult. “Regulating calorie size, or the maximum of a necessary nutrient, such as salt, will always raise questions of whether the government is going too far in regulating our lives.”

 

U.S. Navy makes aviation history with carrier drone launch

By David Alexander

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH | Tue May 14, 2013 3:13pm EDT

 

(Reuters) – The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by launching an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, taking an important step toward expanded use of drones by the American military with an eye on possible rivals like China and Iran.

The bat-winged X-47B stealth drone roared off the USS George H.W. Bush near the coast of Virginia and flew a series of pre-programmed maneuvers around the ship before veering away toward a Naval air station in Maryland where it was scheduled to land.

“This is really a red-letter day. May 14 we all saw history happen” said Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the Atlantic naval air commander. “It’s a marker … between naval aviation as we’ve known it and the future of naval aviation with the launch of the X-47B.”
Because of its stealth potential and a range nearly twice that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the X-47B and its successors are seen as a potential answer to the threat posed by medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran, defense analysts said.

The missiles and other so-called anti-access, area-denial weapons would force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate far enough from shore that piloted aircraft would have to undergo refueling to carry out their missions, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

But with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, an unmanned jet like the X-47B could give the Navy both a long-range strike and reconnaissance capability.

“That makes it strategically very important,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He described the drone as “essentially a really long-range stealth system.”

The X-47B – one of only two demonstrator models made by Northrop Grumman – carries the equivalent of two precision-guided bombs. It was catapulted from the aircraft carrier on Tuesday using the same sling-shot system that sends manned aircraft aloft.

 

LANDING ON BOARD

It is scheduled to undergo two weeks of testing aboard the carrier leading up to a landing on the ship, in which a plane’s tailhook grabs a wire that will slow it and keep it from plunging overboard.

While the carrier takeoff represented a significant milestone, defense analysts are focused on the next step, when the Navy attempts to use what has been learned with the X-47B to develop an unmanned aircraft for actual operations.

“The X-47B is a great story,” said Mark Gunzinger, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think-tank. “It’s a milestone and a step forward for unmanned, carrier-based aviation. But I think the real story is what’s next. How do we operationalize this capability?”

Future variants of the drone could probably be designed for full-spectrum broadband stealth, which means it would be hard for radar to locate it, analysts said. That level of stealth would be one of the drone’s major defenses.

U.S. drones currently in use in places like Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan – like the Predator and Reaper – are not up against any air defenses and are not stealthy aircraft.

Because of its long range and the Navy’s need to have it take off and land, day and night, from an aircraft carrier, the X-47B has been designed to operate with far greater autonomy than the remotely piloted aircraft currently in use.

That has raised concerns among some organizations worried about the heavy U.S. reliance on drones in warfare and the rising use of autonomous robots by the American military.

Human Rights Watch, in a report launching its recent campaign against “killer robots,” cited the X-47B as one of several weapons that represent a transition toward development of fully autonomous arms that require little human intervention.

A follow-on program – known as the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS – is expected to build on what was learned with the X-47B to produce operational aircraft.

“As anti-access environments proliferate, the Navy’s Carrier Air Wings will require a mix of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, with the extended range, persistence, stealth, and payload to ensure U.S. power projection around the globe,” said Representative Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican and member of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

 

Hagel Issues Memo Directing Preparations for Civilian Furloughs

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced today that he has signed a memorandum directing defense managers to prepare to furlough most Defense Department civilian employees for up to 11 days between July 8 and the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.

Here is the text of the memo in its entirety:

 

This memo directs defense managers to prepare to furlough most Department of Defense (DOD) civilians for up to 11 days. The schedule for furloughs, and some specific exceptions, are described later in this memo and in the attachment. I have made this decision very reluctantly, because I know that the furloughs will disrupt lives and impact DOD operations. I, along with the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department, have spent considerable time reviewing information related to the need for furloughs, and I would like to share with you the reasoning that led me to this difficult decision.

 

Major budgetary shortfalls drove the basic furlough decision. On March 1, sequestration went into effect across the federal government. DOD’s budget for FY 2013 was reduced by $37 billion, including $20 billion in the operation and maintenance (O&M) accounts that pay many of our civilian workers. In addition, because our wartime budget is also subject to sequestration, we must utilize funds originally budgeted for other purposes in order to provide our troops at war with every resource they need. To compound our problems, when we estimated future wartime operating costs more than a year ago, we planned on fuel costs below what we are currently experiencing. Taken together, all these factors lead to a shortfall in our O&M accounts of more than $30 billion — a level that exceeds 15 percent of our budget request, with fewer than six months left in the fiscal year in which to accommodate this dramatic reduction in available resources.

 

We are taking actions to reduce this shortfall. One main priority has governed our decisions: to minimize the adverse effects on our military mission, including military readiness.

    With this in mind, early this calendar year we cut back sharply on facilities maintenance and worked to hold down base operating costs — decisions we knew would build a backlog of maintenance and adversely affect our bases. We are also preparing a request to Congress that would permit us to shift some funding from investment and military personnel accounts into the

    O&M accounts. If approved by Congress, this initiative — known as a reprogramming — would help close the gap.

 

But these actions are not enough. We have begun making sharp cuts in the training and maintenance of our operating forces — cutbacks that are seriously harming military readiness. The Army, for example, has terminated most remaining FY 2013 training rotations at its combat training centers. The Air Force has or soon will stop all flying at about one-third of its combat coded squadrons in the active forces. The Navy and Marine Corps are cutting back on training and on deployments — including a decision not to send a second carrier strike group to the Gulf.

 

These are only a few of the many cutbacks we have made in training and maintenance. These actions reduce our ability to handle future military contingency needs, both this year and in subsequent years.

 

Even after taking all these actions, we are still short of needed operating funds for FY 2013, and we cannot rule out unexpected increases in costs during the next few months. So we confront a difficult set of trade offs. We can make even larger cutbacks in training and maintenance, further reducing readiness to handle contingency operations and putting into even greater jeopardy our military readiness in future fiscal years. Alternatively, we can furlough civilian personnel to help close the gap and, knowing that morale, productivity and readiness would be affected. This is an unpleasant set of choices, but this is the situation we face.

 

Before making a decision, I sought advice and inputs from senior leaders in the military departments and agencies as well as advice from my senior civilian and military staff. I asked them to keep in mind our fundamental criterion to minimize adverse mission effects and, subject to that criterion, to ensure reasonable consistency and fairness across the Department for any furloughs that we impose.

 

Based on all these inputs, I have decided to direct furloughs of up to 11 days for most of the Department’s civilian personnel. Furloughs for up to 11 days represent about half of the 22 days that can legally be imposed in a year and also about half the number we had originally planned. This halving of previous furlough plans reflects vigorous efforts to meet our budgetary shortfalls through actions other than furloughs as well as Congressional passage of an appropriations bill in late March that reduced the shortfalls in our operating budget and expectations of Congressional action on our reprogramming request.

 

Furloughs will be imposed in every military department as well as almost every agency and in our working capital funds. All of our civilian employees are important, and I would prefer not to furlough any of them. However, there will only be limited exceptions driven by law and by the need to minimize harm to mission execution. We will except civilians deployed to combat zones and civilians necessary to protect life and property (but only to the extent needed to provide that protection). A few categories of workers will be excepted for specific mission reasons while some categories of workers will be excepted because furloughing them would not free up money for critical DOD mission needs. The attachment provides details regarding approved exceptions. Fewer than one fifth of all civilians paid with appropriated funds will be excepted from furloughs.

 

The planning and implementation of furloughs will be carried out based on the schedule below:

 

— May 28 – June 5: Furlough proposal notices will be served to individual employees subject to furloughs.

 

— June 4 – June 12: Individual employee reply periods end 7 calendar days from when the proposal was received, unless Component procedures allow for a different reply period.

 

— June 5 – July 5: Furlough decision letters will be served to individual employees subject to furloughs, depending on when the proposal was received and prior to the first day of furlough.

 

— July 8: Furlough period begins no earlier than this date.

 

We will begin furloughs on July 8 at the rate of 1 furlough day per week for most personnel. For now, we plan to continue furloughs through the end of FY 2013. That schedule would lead to 11 furlough days — one fifth of the week for about one quarter of the year. Moreover, I am directing all components to monitor funding closely for the remainder of FY 2013. If our budgetary situation permits us to end furloughs early, I would strongly prefer to do so. That is a decision I will make later in the year.

 

Consistent with this memo and with applicable laws and rules, commanders and managers will have the authority to develop the specifics of furlough procedures in order to minimize adverse mission effects and also limit the harm to morale and productivity. Further bargaining with unions may also be required. The Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness has already issued guidance as appropriate regarding personnel and union issues related to furloughs and will issue additional guidance as needed. Overall coordination of sequester and furlough policies will be the responsibility of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller).

 

Each of the Department’s civilian employees makes an important contribution to the readiness of our Department to meet the nation’s national security needs. I understand that the decision to impose furloughs imposes financial burdens on our valued employees, harms overall morale, and corrodes the long-term ability of the Department to carry out the national defense mission. I deeply regret this decision. I will continue to urge that our nation’s leaders reach an agreement to reduce the deficit and de-trigger sequestration. If no agreement is reached, I will continue to look for ways to limit the adverse effects of sequestration and associated budgetary shortfalls both on the men and women of the Department of Defense, and on our national defense.

 

 

US Agencies Can’t Track Savings From Data Center Closings

The government’s goal to close 40 percent of its data centers is behind schedule, an auditor says

CIO.com

By Grant Gross

Tue, May 14, 2013

 

IDG News Service (Washington, D.C., Bureau) — The U.S. government’s effort to close 1,253 of its data centers is falling short of its goal, and agencies haven’t been able to track projected cost savings for the initiative, a government auditor told lawmakers.

The White House Office of Management and Budget’s goal of saving at least US$3 billion by closing 40 percent of the government’s 3,133 data centers is “very realistic,” but so far, the OMB and government agencies haven’t been able to calculate those savings, said David Powner, director of IT management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

OMB has told GAO that, so far, the “savings were minimal,” Powner told the government operations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Who knows, really, where it is?”

OMB, in February 2010, set the goal of closing 1,253 data centers by 2015. As of December, agencies had closed 420 data centers, with plans to close another 548 by December 2015, or 285 closures short of the OMB goal, the GAO said in a report released Tuesday.

Eighteen months from the deadline for data center closings, “we have no idea how much we’ve saved the taxpayers,” said Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, an online community for government IT issues.

While OMB’s data center closure plan was a good one, the agency is not “bringing it to closure,” Powner told the subcommittee. OMB declined to testify during Tuesday’s hearing.

OMB isn’t tracking cost savings, because the agency has “not yet determined a consistent and repeatable method for tracking cost savings,” the GAO report said.

The cost savings estimates for most agencies aren’t available, according to a chart released by the subcommittee. Agencies have estimated just $65.3 million in savings in the government’s fiscal year 2013, out of the $3 billion goal, according to the chart.

Lawmakers called on OMB and the other agencies to find ways to track the results of the data center closings. “If they’re not tracking cost savings, what do they think the consolidation effort is for?” said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “We’ve got to have some consistent measurement by OMB.”

Agencies will are looking at server utilization, energy costs and other criteria in an effort to decide what data centers to close, said Bernard Mazer, CIO at the U.S. Department of Interior. “Many of our servers are at 5 percent, or 10 percent, utilization,” he said.

Agencies should be able to get a better handle on cost savings moving forward, because a federal Data Center Consolidation Task Force is working on establishing cost savings metrics, Mazer said.

Since late 2010, OMB has been pushing agencies to consider cloud computing services as an alternative to operating their own data centers. But the U.S. General Services Administration has certified only two cloud service providers for use by government agencies, O’Keeffe said.

“The on ramp to federal cloud is horribly congested,” O’Keeffe said. “You can hear the honking on the digital highway right now as software companies line up to get through federal certification.”

O’Keeffe called on OMB and other agencies to “set realistic goals in the open and publish the real status on success and failure.” Agency CIOs should prioritize what applications they need to continue to operate, and agencies should look to private company efforts to optimize data centers for the best ideas moving forward, he said.

“How long did it take Nasdaq to do its data center optimization?” he said. “What steps did it take? How much money did it save? Can we learn a huge amount from industry? Absolutely, yes.”

 

 

Germany Cancels $1.3 Billion Purchase of Euro Hawks

http://www.uasvision.com/2013/05/15/germany-cancels-1-3-billion-purchase-of-euro-hawks/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=54a70221c6-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_term=0_799756aeb7-54a70221c6-297544773

UASVision

Posted on May 15, 2013 by The Editor    

 

An official says that Germany has cancelled plans to purchase and modify U.S.-made Global Hawk UAS for 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion).

The aircraft made by Northrop Grumman were to be equipped with special signal interception devices and re-named Euro Hawk.

One experimental aircraft already purchased will continue to be used for testing purposes.

A government official said on Tuesday the decision not to buy four more aircraft was taken after it became clear that getting the required authorization to fly them over European airspace would be too costly. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly ahead of a meeting Wednesday of Parliament’s defence committee.

The official put the cost to the government of cancelling the programme at about 250 million euros.

Source: FOX News

 

Drones over Pendleton: Unmanned military craft plies civilian airspace

15 May 2013

By Press

Richard Cockle, The Oregonian

PENDLETON — A 375-pound Oregon Army National Guard drone carrying a sophisticated camera was catapulted into the cobalt-blue eastern Oregon sky here Tuesday, in what Guard officials called the first-ever flight of an unmanned military aircraft through civilian airspace.

Until now, military drones have been confined to restricted airspace above U.S. military bases. The Guard expects to initially fly the four unmanned planes based here twice a month, and later expand the flights to once a week over the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton and wheat fields to the north, said Pat Caldwell, a Guard spokesman.

The brief flight of the Guard’s RQ7B Shadow around the airport takes the Guard into potentially controversial territory.

The possibility of widespread drone use has prompted debate in the Oregon Legislature this year, pitting concerns over domestic surveillance against the promise of a tantalizing new industry. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, introduced legislation that would criminalize the use of drones to fire missiles or spy on people.

But Guard officials vow that the drones flown from Pendleton will be used for combat training, not peeking poolside or in the windows of homes and businesses.

“Our cameras are here to do military training,” said Sgt. Eric Smidt, spokesman for the 27-member National Guard troop platoon that flies them. “As military personnel, we are not allowed to look in on civilians.”

Tuesday’s flight into airspace designated for general aviation puts the Oregon Army National Guard on the cutting-edge of unmanned aerial system technology, said Lt. Col. Alan R. Gronewold.

“I foresee this expanding greatly over the next few years,” said an enthusiastic Oregon Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Mark Braeme.

The RQ7B Shadow is eleven feet long, with a 14-foot wingspan and a noise signature like “an unmuffled lawn mower engine on steroids,” according to Braeme. The craft is a smaller, unarmed version of the unmanned Predator drones used by the U.S. military to hunt down and kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Guard officals said the plane’s $800,000 pricetag is largely due to the cost of its miniaturized and high-tech camera payload.

http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2013/05/drones_over_pendleton_unmanned.html

 

FBI Faces Furloughs in 2014

By Eric Katz

May 16, 2013

 

The FBI will furlough agents and employees in fiscal 2014, should sequestration cuts continue as scheduled.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department the FBI would have no choice but to force unpaid leave, thereby putting the country at risk.

“I have long said people are the bureau’s greatest asset,” Mueller said at the subcommittee hearing Thursday. “Additional operational cuts and furloughs will impact the FBI’s ability to prevent crime and terrorism, which will in turn impact the safety and security of our nation.”

He added the bureau has taken every possible step to protect its workforce, but the cuts will become too deep to avoid furloughs.

“We have two resources to cut,” Mueller testified. “One is our people, which is a last resort.”

The other option is the FBI’s infrastructure, which the director said is “tremendously important to us but comes second to our people.”

Mueller said the FBI cannot absorb the $700 million in sequestration cuts scheduled for fiscal 2014, however, without resorting to policies detrimental to the workforce. The FBI has already sustained $550 million in automatic cuts in fiscal 2013 on top of $150 million in cuts from 2013 appropriations, but it has been able to avoid furloughs this fiscal year.

Lawmakers expressed their disapproval with the plan. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the full committee, called it “shocking” the bureau would have to furlough agents.

“The FBI is known for its agents,” she said. “The threats do not go away. This is not deferring maintenance to a dorm.”

The senator renewed a call for a permanent solution to replace the across-the-board cuts.

“This is a self-inflicted wound,” she said. “This is not an external threat from a foreign country or what organized crime is doing to us. It’s what we’re doing to ourselves. And I think we have to find a solution for canceling sequester, not better managing sequester.”

Mueller said the furloughs would have a significant and adverse impact on agents.

“There is nothing more demoralizing than when you are faced with furloughs,” he told the panel. “Unable to pay your bills, working hard, but the government has to furlough you because there is insufficient money to keep you on.”

Mueller added, however, the unpaid leave would not have stopped a prompt response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April.

“Furlough or no furlough everyone would be in immediately,” he said, “even if you didn’t get paid.”

These employees would still get paid, however. The Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance that states an employee on furlough who is called back into work for emergency purposes has his furlough canceled and receives normal compensation. An FBI agent would not be legally permitted to voluntarily come into work while furloughed without receiving pay.

http://www.govexec.com/pay-benefits/2013/05/fbi-faces-furloughs-2014/63216/

 

U.S. could use cyberattack on Syrian air defenses

Jim Michaels, USA TODAY1:50 p.m. EDT May 16, 2013

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has cyberattack capabilities that allow the U.S. military to help blind Syrian air defenses without firing a shot, according to military analysts.

“One of the reasons the Air Force has paid so much attention to cyberwarfare is … for beating enemy air defenses,” said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. abilities to defeat Syria’s air defenses are central to a debate over whether to intervene in the 2-year-old civil war. Electronic methods to disable enemy air defense systems include the injection of malware, a form of computer software, into the air defense network through a computer attack or by traditional electronic warfare aircraft capable of jamming radar.

The radars act like wireless transmitters and jammers can send false or destructive information into the radar, which then gets into the network, said Shlomo Narkolayev, an analyst who previously worked on cyber issues for the Israeli military’s Unit 8200, which handles cyberwarfare.

“It’s not hard to do this,” Narkolayev said.

Syria and other nations are constantly adjusting the electronics for their air systems, and Air Force documents show the U.S. military does the same with its cyberweapons. They are constantly updated to counter changes made by enemy militaries.

A 2007 Israeli attack on a suspected Syrian nuclear power plant in 2007 provided a template for a future attack. The Israelis used a cyberattack to disable Syrian air defenses before aircraft entered Syrian airspace.

The Israeli attack was a quick strike that only required temporarily blinding air defenses. Establishing a no-fly zone would be a lengthier campaign that would require taking down Syrian air defenses for weeks or months.

Cyberattacks can cause permanent damage, Lewis said. U.S. forces have been reluctant to use cyberattacks for fear of creating collateral damage from malware that could damage other networks and because of concerns that enemy nations will copy the destructive malware once it is released. “We’ve been very cautious with the use of cyberweapons,” Lewis said.

The Pentagon is in the process of reviewing new rules of engagement for cyberwarfare.

Syrians could take the system offline to avoid an infection spreading, but then the system would be less effective, Lewis said.

The Pentagon has said any air campaign would be a challenge because of the size and sophistication of Syrian air defenses, which are far more extensive than in Libya, where the United States and NATO created a no-fly zone in 2011.

“It’s a much denser and more sophisticated system,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently.

U.S. and allied aircraft successfully launched an air campaign in Libya that helped defeat the regime of Moammar Ghadafi. It has frequently been help up as a model of what to do in Syria.

The White House launched an initiative to provide non-lethal aid to rebels battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has not decided on any further military options.

The question of how to respond has taken on renewed urgency after the Obama administration said the Assad regime has probably used chemical weapons.

Critics of the White House’s Syrian policy, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading Republican voice on foreign policy issues, advocate a more robust response, including establishing a no-fly zone.

While cyberwarfare provides some advantages it is not without risk and cannot replace more conventional tactics, said Jeffrey Carr, founder of Taia Global, a cybersecurity consultancy. “Cyber is not a magic bullet,” he said.

Analysts say if cyberattacks were used it would likely be alongside more traditional methods, such as jamming radar and missiles that lock on to radar sites. That requires pilots who risk their lives flying in dangerous airspace.

Air defense systems generally tie radar and missile sites together over a computer network. The system may be generally closed, but may connect with the Internet at junctures that are vulnerable to outside attack, analysts say. “Once you penetrate the systems you can do anything,” Narkolayev said.

 

 

Google Glass Privacy Worries Lawmakers

The Wall Street Journal

Updated May 16, 2013, 10:26 p.m. ET

By AMIR EFRATI

Eight members of Congress on Thursday asked Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page to give assurances about privacy safeguards for the company’s high-profile Google Glass wearable-computing device.

The demands come as Google holds its annual developer conference in San Francisco, where it is coaching hundreds of developers on how to write programs for the device. Google Glass is an accessory worn on a person’s face and places a small computer screen above one eye, and it connects wirelessly to a smartphone using Bluetooth technology. The device is currently available to fewer than a couple thousand developers who paid $1,500 for a prototype, ahead of a planned public launch of Glass sometime next year.

Thursday’s letter, signed by members of the congressional bipartisan “privacy caucus,” asks Google how it would “prevent Google Glass from unintentionally collecting data about the user/non-user without consent,” including through the use of facial-recognition technology.

The letter was signed by Republican Reps. Joe Barton (Texas), Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Richard Nugent (Fla.) as well as Democratic Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Hank Johnson Jr. (Ga.), Walter B. Jones (N.C.), Bobby Rush (Ill.) and Loretta Sanchez (Calif.).

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the congressional letter.

Since Google first previewed Google Glass a year ago, several state legislators and store owners already have suggested banning Google Glass wearers from driving or entering certain stores.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy group, said “Congress is right to ask Google about the plans for Glass.” He added that “the privacy issues are huge and not well understood,” adding that the “number one concern is whether Google is capturing the data stream” generated by the device user.

Not every privacy advocate is as concerned. Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said Google Glass “doesn’t do anything more than your phone can already do—it’s just a new hands-free interface.” He added that “Congress is absolutely right to be concerned about the potential implications of facial recognition, but that’s more of a long-term concern than an immediate issue” and isn’t limited to Google Glass but rather to any camera in public. “The sensors, the databases, and the analytical capability aren’t there yet,” he added.

On Thursday, Steve Lee, a lead project manager of Google Glass, said during a conference question-and-answer session that the company won’t permit applications to be distributed through its app store if they violate certain rules, such as allowing Glass to record information without lighting up its small screen so that people next to the wearer can see it is on. “From the beginning we’ve been thinking about the social implications…not only for people wearing Glass but for people who aren’t,” he said.

He added that data recorded by the device will be handled in accordance with Google’s existing privacy policies. Google says generally that its policies allow it to collect information in an anonymous way, and hold data about specific people only if they agree to it.

Mr. Lee said Google has experimented with using facial-recognition technology for Glass but didn’t have plans to release such software now, though he left the door open to doing so. “I want to make sure there’s clear user benefit,” he said, adding that he expected third-party developers to create such technology for Glass, implying that a facial-recognition app could be permitted.

On Wednesday, Google co-founder Sergey Brin also said the company had thought about some privacy implications for Glass and made sure people who aren’t using the device would be able to tell when it is on and could be recording them using its built-in camera. He added that people always have a natural aversion to innovation.

Google Glass is in its infancy. It lets people take photos and record videos by touching the side of the device, which is worn like regular glasses, or speaking commands aloud, preceded by the words “OK, Glass.” People also can use Google search and get turn-by-turn navigation information on the screen.

On Thursday, social network Facebook Inc. said it developed an app for Glass so people could share photos taken using Glass’s camera with their friends on Facebook. Messaging service Twitter Inc. also has developed an app for Glass.

Software developers are discussing creating apps for numerous industries, including one that helps construction workers on the job or helps paraplegic individuals take photos. Glass also allows its owner to let anyone “see” through its camera through the Google+ social-networking service. Some tech enthusiasts say they envision scenarios in which a physician would get access to a Google Glass camera worn by a person who is trying to administer medical aid in another city or country, among other potential uses.

The congressional letter, which asks for a reply by June 14, also asks whether there are safeguards Google is building so that data stored on the device can’t be accessed by someone other than the owner. The letter also asks: “When using Google Glass, is it true that this product would be able to use Facial Recognition Technology to unveil personal information about whomever and even some inanimate objects that the user is viewing?”

The letter made reference to one of Google’s biggest privacy flaps involving vehicles that captured images for its Street View service on Google Maps. For several years those vehicles captured information from unencrypted wireless networks that it passed by while driving. Google has paid fines and weathered embarrassing government probes about the matter.

Google is amassing a growing array of data about individuals and the world around them, hoping to provide Google users with “personalized” information, including in Web-search, Google Maps, YouTube and other services.

The company showed off such features this week during its developer conference. They include Google Now, which tries to anticipate the information needs of people who use devices powered by Android mobile operating systems, providing them with “cards” showing traffic conditions or flight information related to a person’s travel plans, among many other things. Google owns Android, which powers the majority of smartphones in the world and a growing percentage of tablets.

Glass is viewed as a kind of accessory for smartphones, and many of the early apps created for the device are versions of smartphone apps, but don’t require people to hold or look down at their smartphones.

Some software developers who use the Google Glass prototype said the device is no more intrusive to people’s privacy than a smartphone, which typically have the same features. Ethan Nagel, co-founder of Tomfoolery Inc., which developers collaboration software for businesses, said anyone could misuse a mobile device to violate people’s privacy, but “there’s a certain element of trust we have in people” not to do so.

“It’s Google responsibility” to encourage developers to behave, but the company can’t control every device, said Mr. Nagel.

 

Ohio’s well data shatters shale oil hopes

Thu, May 16 2013

By Edward McAllister and Sabina Zawadzki

NEW YORK | Thu May 16, 2013 8:08pm EDT

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/17/us-ohio-utica-data-idUSBRE94G00B20130517

 

(Reuters) – U.S. hopes for a new shale oil bonanza in Ohio, joining the prolific Bakken and Eagle Ford plays that have raised production to 20-year highs, were shattered on Thursday by the first hard evidence that the Utica formation was primarily gas-prone.

Just two years ago, the Utica had the global oil industry buzzing as companies rushed to buy acreage in the Midwest state in the belief it could hold a $500-billion bounty, as Chesapeake Energy’s former CEO, Aubrey McClendon, had proclaimed.

Now, data from Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) showed that in 2012, the first full year of drilling, oil output amounted to only 636,000 barrels — about enough to fill a single small crude oil tanker. On average for the full year, output came to a mere 1,742 barrels a day (bpd) versus 780,000 bpd in North Dakota, where much of Bakken lies.

“This is less impressive than was initially touted,” said Mark Hanson, energy analyst at Morningstar in Chicago. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be the next Eagle Ford.”

State officials sought to put a positive spin on the year’s drilling results, which were released on an annualized basis rather than monthly like most other states.

The officials highlighted the “significant” natural gas production of 35 million cubic feet (mmcf) a day in 2012, a sum based on Reuters calculations of annual DNR data. They said the data made a “compelling statement” about the “staggering” amount of reserves in the Utica shale.

But whether or not companies are willing to keep drilling and produce those reserves is a different question. Crude oil flowed from the Utica wells at an uneconomic trickle. Gas prices are low and supplies are abundant, making it a challenge to justify the massive investments needed to bring it to market.

While the news will not come as a surprise to the industry and analysts — scepticism has grown over the past year as individual companies indicated their first results — this is the first time a full database of wells has been released.

Ohio publishes only annual well data and in 2011 development of the plays had only begun making the 2012 results crucial to assessing the real potential of the formation. Most other states publish data on a monthly basis.

“The reported volumes of oil are lower than initially estimated, but higher than conventional non-shale oil wells. Oil production will be incidental to gas production in much of the Utica/Point Pleasant play,” the DNR said in a statement.

Oil production in the United States, by far the world’s largest consumer of crude, has risen to its highest levels since 1992 to 7.159 million barrels a day thanks to the shale oil renaissance in North Dakota and in Texas, home to the Eagle Ford formation.

Signs of waning enthusiasm for Utica appeared last year when dominant companies such as Chesapeake (CHK.N) and Devon Energy (DVN.N) began selling off acreage in what was originally expected to be oil-rich parts of the play.

This was a change for Chesapeake given McClendon’s description of the formation as “the biggest thing to hit Ohio since the plow.”

The data issued on Thursday comprised all 87 producing wells in the formation in the state. According to Reuters calculations from that data, the average oil production per well per days the well was active, was 80 barrels a day.

In North Dakota, where production is in full swing, the average daily production per well is 600 barrels.

Nevertheless, drilling in general is expected to accelerate and new pipeline infrastructure will allow wells to bring oil and gas to markets nationwide more cheaply.

Counties in Ohio showed varying potential, Morningstar’s Hanson said, pointing out that Harrison County showed some evidence of strong oil production, while Carroll County seemed more gassy.

And the DNR remained upbeat about the data.

“The production from these initial Utica wells makes a compelling statement about the staggering amount of oil and gas resources Ohio’s shale may contain,” said James Zehringer, DNR’s director.

The department expects more than 360 wells to be producing in the Utica this year and 1,000 in 2015. Zehringer signaled production data could become available more frequently in the future.

“As oil and gas production grows, we need to see these production numbers more frequently. This will allow us to adjust to the growing needs and not fall behind from a regulatory standpoint,” he said.

 

Texas drone bill sparks a battle

Media groups, and even some privacy advocates slam Texas effort to limit drone use as a threat to free speech

Jaikumar Vijayan

May 17, 2013 (Computerworld)

 

The battle to find a balance between privacy concerns and the beneficial use of drones for commercial and law enforcement purposes is in sharp focus in a bill that’s winding its way through the Texas legislature.

The Texas Privacy Act (HB 912), sponsored by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-District 4), would make it illegal, under specific circumstances, to take photographs or possess photographs taken from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

The Texas bill carves out exemptions for law enforcement officers with a valid search warrant, or who are in active pursuit of a suspect. The legislation would also permit drone use by border patrol agents and first responders on firefighting or rescue efforts.

In most other cases, though, owners or operators of drones would be prohibited from capturing images of people, property, land and buildings without permission of the person being photographed and/or the owner of the property.

Anyone that “possesses, discloses, displays, distributes or otherwise uses an image” without such consent would face fines of up to $1,000 for each illegal act. The law would permit individuals to bring legal action against drone operators they believe took photos of them or their property.

The bill has passed the Texas House and is now set for debate in the state Senate.

The bill has prompted sharp criticism from media and entertainment groups, which contend that its language threatens constitutionally protected free speech.

In a letter sent this week, members of The Society of Professional Journalists, The Motion Picture Association of America, The Radio and Television Digital News Association and others called on the Texas Senate to reject the measure.

“We believe that this bill will create a significant impediment to journalists and others who are engaged in constitutionally protected speech,” said Alicia Calzada, attorney for the National Press Photographers Association, in the letter.

The bill’s language is so vague it effectively makes photography a crime, Calzada wrote. “It makes speech in the form of publishing images, or even possessing them, illegal,” she said.

 

The bill does not clearly define illegal monitoring or surveillance, the letter said. Such ambiguity is dangerous, Calzada noted.

“A journalist (or ordinary citizen) monitoring an environmental spill, documenting the aftermath of a disaster or simply monitoring traffic conditions could easily be committing a crime under this bill. This would create an enormous burden on speech that is clearly constitutionally protected,” the letter argued.

The bill also makes no distinction between private and public property, Calzada wrote. “Photography that is completely legal using a helicopter, would suddenly be illegal, and subject the photographer to significant liability, simply because it is taken with a UAV,” she said.

In an email to Computerworld, Calzada pointed to a 2012 incident involving a meatpacking company in the Dallas area. A local citizen, using a simple camera-equipped remote-controlled airplane flying at low-altitude, took several photos of the Trinity River. On retrieving his photos, he noticed what appeared to be blood and notified authorities.

Local and state authorities later confirmed that untreated pig blood was being released into the river by a meatpacking plant. The discovery led to an 18-count indictment charging the company and two of its executives with offenses.

“If this bill were in place at the time, the citizen who blew the whistle on this horrible event would be criminally liable. In addition, he would be subject to a civil lawsuit,” Calzada said in the email.

The Dallas Morning News and area television stations that carried the images would have also been subject to lawsuits, she said. “The way the bill is written, I could be standing in a public place and the UAV could be in a public place, but because private property is simply in the photograph, I would be liable.”

Such sentiments are notable, she said. Until now, the most vocal protests related to drones have been from people opposed to the use of UAVs over domestic airspace.

Concerns about drone use have been growing ever since President Barack Obama signed off on the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 last year. The bill permits commercial UAVs to operate over U.S. airspace.

Some experts estimate that there could be as many as 30,000 drones operating over U.S. skies in the next few years, which has alarmed privacy and rights advocacy groups.

Privacy advocates fear that drones equipped with cameras, license plate readers and other sophisticated monitoring equipment will allow law enforcement and commercial entities to carry out unprecedented surveillance of U.S. citizens. Such concerns have already prompted several states to pass, or consider passing laws that would limit what drone operators can and cannot do.

Drone industry lobbyists such as Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) insist that privacy and civil rights concerns tied to drones stem from a misunderstanding of how they will be used. AUVSI and other groups say that drones can be useful in many areas, including law enforcement, traffic management, crop monitoring, land management, news reporting, real estate sales and filmmaking.

Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for the AUVSI said the Texas legislation aims to rewrite search warrant requirements and create a separate distinction for unmanned systems.

“Would search and rescue teams not be able to use [Unmanned Aerial Systems] to take photos of an area where a missing child is thought to be? Would researchers be prohibited from using UAS to photograph hurricanes or tornadoes in efforts to better understand them and predict their paths? Would farmers be prohibited from using UAS to take images of their crops to efficiently check for signs of drought or blight?” she asked.

 

The protests in Texas highlight the challenges involved in keeping both sides happy, said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“This piece of legislation goes way too far,” in limiting drone use, she said. “It contains the most broad language of any of the pieces of legislation I have seen so far.” she noted.

As the FAA starts issuing more licenses expect to see more such challenges to state drone privacy laws, Lynch added.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter@jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar’s RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His email address is jvijayan@computerworld.com

 

 

Dell’s thumb PC, Project Ophelia, to ship in July

Dell says Android-based Project Ophelia could be a PC, gaming console or TV set-top box

Agam Shah

May 17, 2013 (IDG News Service)

 

Dell’s thumb-sized PC called Project Ophelia, which is the size of a USB stick, will start shipping in July for around $100.

The Android-based device will plug into a display’s HDMI port so that it can run applications or access files stored remotely. It will have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities and is aimed at users who do most of their computing on the Web.

Ophelia can turn any screen or display into a PC, gaming machine or a TV set-top box, said Jeff McNaught, executive director of cloud client computing at Dell. Users will be able to download apps, movies and TV shows from the Google Play store, McNaught said. Users will also be able to run Android games or stream movies from Hulu or Netflix.

It is meant to be an inexpensive alternative to tablets and PCs, McNaught said. However, users need to be close to a TV screen, display or projector with an HDMI port to use it.

The company is working on a keyboard-like technology for users to type when Ophelia is docked to a screen, he said.

Dell will demonstrate Ophelia on 19-inch and 55-inch screens at next week’s Citrix Synergy conference in Los Angeles. It was introduced in January at the International CES show.

Ophelia will also come with Wyse’s PocketCloud, which allows users to access files stored on PCs, servers or mobile devices. Other improvements being implemented will include usability of the device.

“We’ve done a number of things in the software of the product and outside that will make it interesting,” McNaught said.

The first units will ship to developers who may want to write Android apps for Ophelia. In August, it will be available via cable companies or telecom providers that may want to offer it with cable packages or data plans. Shortly after, it will be available to consumers on Dell’s website.

Dell is also pitching Ophelia to enterprises as a pocket-sized thin client, McNaught said.

 

A set of features will allow IT administrators to manage and secure the device. For example, it could be wiped clean if it is lost. The feature set, called cloud client manager, will allow system administrators to see where users are and what they are doing with Ophelia.

“We want to make sure when we release the product that it’s perfect. The enterprise is one market we understand,” McNaught said.

 

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Rasmussen Reports

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Another day, another controversy? It must have seemed that way lately to the Obama administration, but will it matter? Voters are sending mixed signals so far. 

The strongest voter reaction can be found in response to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups. Most voters believe the targeting was politically motivated and 57% think most of those involved should be fired or jailed. Fifty-five percent (55%) think it is at least somewhat likely that President Obama or his top aides were aware of the IRS’ actions.

However, the recent high-profile congressional hearings on events surrounding the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi have had no impact on public opinion. Before the hearings, 32% thought the administration had done a good job explaining what happened in Libya last fall. After the hearings, that number was 31%. Before the hearings, 78% thought it was important to learn what happened. After, that figure was 82%.

Voters are closely divided over whether the Justice Department’s secret seizure of telephone records from the Associated Press was an effort to protect national security or an attempt to bully the media. A narrow plurality believes the press already has too much freedom on national security issues.

In his latest weekly newspaper column, Scott Rasmussen says the Justice Department scandal is the most “nuanced” of the president’s current problems. “While the public is not up in arms over this issue, journalists are,” Scott explains. “So there is likely to be more aggressive reporting on some of the other challenges facing the White House.” 

While the short-term implications are impossible to predict, Scott adds that the events of the past few days “will make the president’s biggest uphill battle impossible to achieve – trying to build faith in the federal government.”

Despite the recent bad news, 49% of voters still consider the president a good or excellent leader, unchanged from March but down from a high of 55% in January. This is more in line with views of Obama prior to Election Day.

The leadership numbers also parallel Obama’s job approval ratings in the daily Presidential Tracking Poll.

Forty-six percent (46%) still give the president good or excellent marks when it comes to his handling of national security issues. But 39% now give him poor marks in this area, a six-point increase from a week ago. When it comes to the economy, 39% of voters think the president is doing a good or excellent job.

Obama draws his lowest ratings to date for his handling of issues related to deficit reduction and economic fairness. Thirty-four percent (34%) believe the president is doing a good or excellent job dealing with deficit reduction. Just 35% think the president say the same of his handling of issues related to economic fairness.

The president’s health care law, scheduled for full implementation by next year, may be another big cloud on the horizon. Voters now give the U.S. health care system its lowest marks in recent years and are increasingly pessimistic about the short-term future of health care in this country. Fifty-six percent (56%) believe the health care system is likely to get worse over the next couple of years. That figure has been inching up from 50% last November.

Voters still agree with the president on the need for a ban on semi-automatic and so-called assault-type weapons, but 64% think it would be bad for America if government officials such as police and military personnel were the only ones allowed to have guns.

Most voters believe either state (36%) or local governments (17%) should set laws on gun ownership. Just 34% believe the feds should have that responsibility. 

While Congress and the president try to hammer out a plan to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants in this country, we thought it was a good time to ask about legal immigration. Most Americans think the United States should welcome legal immigrants from around the world but believe those from countries with terrorist ties should be eyed more closely. They also think the United States should give preference to immigrants who are good for the economy.

If the border is truly secured as party of comprehensive immigration reform, however, 38% believe the government should decrease the level of legal immigration, too.

But is anybody listening? Just eight percent (8%) of voters believe the average member of Congress listens to the voters he or she represents more than congressional party leaders. An overwhelming majority (80%) believes the average congressman listens to party leaders more. No wonder that just 12% believe members of Congress almost always get reelected because they do a good job representing their constituents.

Half of U.S. voters continue to favor an immediate withdrawal of all American forces from Afghanistan, as fewer than ever think the United States can really win there. Only 25% believe it is still possible for the United States to win the nearly 12-year-long war in Afghanistan, down dramatically from the 51% who felt that way in early December 2009.

Consumer confidence remains just below the highest levels in recent years.

Democrats have a two-point lead on the latest Generic Congressional Ballot.

In other surveys last week:

— Thirty percent (30%) of Likely U.S. Voters now say the country is heading in the right direction.

— Voters are now evenly divided when asked if elections in the United States are fair today, and a solid majority continues to believe that the U.S. government does not have the consent of the governed. But the Political Class strongly disagrees.

— Eighty-four percent (84%) of Americans believe English should be the official language of the United States, and 77% don’t believe requiring people to speak English is a form of racism or bigotry.

— The horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh more than two weeks ago that left more than 1,100 people dead has put the human toll of producing cheap clothing and other products back in the minds of many. While fewer than half of Americans make an effort to only buy clothes made domestically, they support requirements for apparel companies to report where their clothes are made and details about working conditions in those countries.

— Half of Americans believe major college sports programs are bad for higher education and break the rules on a regular basis when recruiting.

— Seventy-three percent (73%) believe football coaches at major colleges are paid too much, and 57% favor a proposal that would prevent them from being paid more than professors are.

— A ruling is expected next month on a suit filed by a former college basketball star claiming that the NCAA should not profit from using the names and images of athletes without paying them, and 50% of Americans agree.

Working adults seem to enjoy a life away from the job even when they’re out with their co-workers. Forty-nine percent (49%) of Employed Adults rarely or never get together with co-workers for social events, while another 36% say they do so only occasionally.

— Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans planned to visit their mothers last Sunday for Mother’s Day.

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