April 16, 2024

Résumé Shows Snowden Honed Hacking Skills

He took a course that trains security professionals to think like hackers and understand their techniques, all with the intent of turning out “certified ethical hackers” who can better defend their employers’ networks.

But the certification, listed on a résumé that Mr. Snowden later prepared, would also have given him some of the skills he needed to rummage undetected through N.S.A. computer systems and gather the highly classified surveillance documents that he leaked last month, security experts say.

Mr. Snowden’s résumé, which has not been made public and was described by people who have seen it, provides a new picture of how his skills and responsibilities expanded while he worked as an intelligence contractor. Although federal officials offered only a vague description of him as a “systems administrator,” the résumé suggests that he had transformed himself into the kind of cybersecurity expert the N.S.A. is desperate to recruit, making his decision to release the documents even more embarrassing to the agency.

“If he’s looking inside U.S. government networks for foreign intrusions, he might have very broad access,” said James A. Lewis, a computer security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The hacker got into the storeroom.”

In an age when terabytes of data can be stashed inside palm-size devices, the new details about Mr. Snowden’s training and assignments underscore the challenges that the N.S.A. faces in recruiting a new generation of free-spirited computer experts with diverse political views.

Mr. Snowden, who is now marooned at an airport in Moscow waiting to see if another country will grant him asylum, has said he leaked the documents to alert the public to the sweeping nature of the American government’s surveillance. He took a job as an “infrastructure analyst” with Booz Allen Hamilton in April at an N.S.A. facility in Hawaii, he has said, to gain access to lists of computers that the agency had hacked around the world.

Mr. Snowden prepared the résumé shortly before applying for that job, while he was working in Hawaii for the N.S.A. with Dell, the computer maker, which has intelligence contracts. Little has been reported about his four years with Dell, but his résumé, as described, says that he rose from supervising computer system upgrades for the spy agency in Tokyo to working as a “cyberstrategist” and an “expert in cyber counterintelligence” at several locations in the United States.

In what may have been his last job for Dell in Hawaii, he was responsible for the security of “Windows infrastructure” in the Pacific, he wrote, according to people who have seen his résumé. He had enough access there to start making contacts with journalists in January and February about disclosing delicate information. His work for Dell may also have enabled him to see that he would have even more access at Booz Allen.

Some intelligence experts say that the types of files he improperly downloaded at Booz Allen suggest that he had shifted to the offensive side of electronic spying or cyberwarfare, in which the N.S.A. examines other nations’ computer systems to steal information or to prepare attacks. The N.S.A.’s director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, has encouraged workers to try their skills both defensively and offensively, and moving to offense from defense is a common career pattern, officials say.

Whatever his role, Mr. Snowden’s ability to comb through the networks as a lone wolf — and walk out the door with the documents on thumb drives — shows how the agency’s internal security system has fallen short, former officials say.

“If Visa can call me and say, ‘Are you in Dakar, Senegal?’ when they see a purchase that doesn’t fit my history, then we ought to be able to detect something like this,” said Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. “That continuous monitoring does not seem to have been in place.”

But Michael Maloof, a software developer who supplied internal monitoring systems to private companies, said that with Mr. Snowden’s training in hacking, he “would have known to keep his probes low and slow, a little bit here, a little bit there, so there was nothing to detect.”

If alarms went off as he grabbed documents, Mr. Maloof said, Mr. Snowden might have been able to explain away the alerts by saying that he was merely testing the protections as part of his security job.

Mr. Snowden grew up in Baltimore’s southern suburbs, where many of his neighbors would have been tech-savvy N.S.A. employees working at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade. Conventional schooling did not agree with him, and he dropped out of high school and eventually sought technical training in a series of courses.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/us/resume-shows-snowden-honed-hacking-skills.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

F.C.C. Advances Plan for Faster In-Flight Wi-Fi

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday proposed auctioning off the rights to use newly available airwaves to provide better in-flight Wi-Fi connections, as the government agency seeks to improve the speed and lower the cost of Internet service on commercial flights.

The commission’s proposal is the first step toward a goal that it is likely to take a couple of years, at least, to reach: providing in-flight Internet service that can match or exceed the capabilities that most Americans have at home or can find in coffee shops.

The new format would use a more reliable system of contact between a plane and the ground, agency officials said, and should allow providers to offer more consistent service that is some 30 times faster than the service that many Americans have in their homes.

Although it will be at least a couple of years before the new service is available, federal officials and people in the broadband business expressed excitement that the new format could free airline passengers from being captive to the expensive and rather slow Wi-Fi that is currently available on only some domestic flights.

“The reality is that we expect and often need to be able to get online 24/7, at home, in an office or on a plane,” Julius Genachowski, the F.C.C. chairman, said at a meeting where the commission voted 4 to 0 to begin the necessary steps. “This will enable business and leisure travelers aboard aircraft in the United States to be more productive and have more choices in entertainment, communications and social media, and it could lower prices.”

The agency’s plan calls for the sale of one or more licenses to allow an Internet service provider to share certain airwaves with satellite communications companies. Those airwaves would then be used for an air-to-ground system of connections that employs cellphone towers.

Before the auction, the agency will have to decide how many licenses to grant in the 500-megahertz block of spectrum and what engineering rules will be required to prevent interference between the various services. The agency’s action Thursday kicks off the process by requesting public comment.

Roughly a quarter of daily domestic flights have Wi-Fi service, according to Routehappy.com, which tracks travel information. Another 12 percent of flights have trial service or offer service on a given route depending on the aircraft used. But it is not always easy to tell when booking a flight whether it will have Wi-Fi service, said John Walton, director of data for Routehappy.

In-flight service is now usually limited to about 3 megabits per second, per plane — barely half the speed of the average household DSL connection and one-third the average wired broadband speed. The new system will be faster in part because it will operate on a different band of spectrum, and in part because of the way it transmits signals.

Currently, there are two types of in-flight broadband service: satellite-based and air-to-ground. Satellite systems use antennas mounted on the top of planes to communicate with satellites. Air-to-ground systems send signals between a ground-based network and an antenna on the bottom of a plane.

The new system would share the 14.0-14.5 gigahertz band of the electromagnetic spectrum, a 500-megahertz band that is far wider than the current 4-megahertz band used in air-to-ground systems. All of that means that the new system would be capable of transmitting data at up to 300 gigabits per second — or 30 times the average home broadband speed.

“Air-to-ground connectivity is inherently less expensive than satellite systems,” said Mary Kirby, editor in chief of Airline Passenger Experience magazine. “The industry knows that they need to meet consumer demand for increased connectivity. It’s quite literally become the cost of doing business.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. The Satellite Industry Association said it had filed with the commission “detailed technical analyses that demonstrate that the proposed air-ground service would cause interference into the satellite services.”

Those services have first rights to the airwaves in question, which are used by media, public safety and American military customers for essential communications, the association said. Companies like Boeing, which makes satellites as well as planes, also oppose the proposal.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner who supported getting the proposal under way, said it was clear which way the requirements for connectivity were moving.

“In our hyperconnected age, we need and expect access to connectivity and content anytime and anywhere,” Ms. Rosenworcel said. “The world simply does not wait for us to get off the plane.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/business/fcc-advances-plan-for-faster-in-flight-wi-fi.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Boeing to Propose Battery Fixes to F.A.A.

The officials said Boeing has narrowed down the ways the lithium-ion batteries on the jetliners could fail, and believes that adding insulation between the cells of the batteries and making other changes would provide enough assurance that they would be safe to use.

Raymond L. Conner, the president of Boeing’s commercial airplane division, plans to propose the fixes in a Friday meeting with Michael P. Huerta, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Mr. Huerta is not expected to approve the changes immediately, but the meeting is likely to start a high-level discussion on the standards Boeing needs to meet as it tests the fixes and seeks to get the planes flying again.

Boeing’s plan could be a pivotal moment in the history of the innovative fuel-efficient planes. Mr. Huerta and regulators around the world grounded the planes in mid-January after a battery caught fire on one jet parked at the Boston airport and smoke forced another 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan.

Investigators have not determined what caused those problems. But Boeing’s engineers have worked closely with the F.A.A. and outside experts to identify ways in which the batteries could have failed, and Boeing is now asking the government to sign off on a calculation that they have now come up with a safer design.

Given the risks in moving ahead, federal officials said, the F.A.A. has insisted behind the scenes that Boeing needed to come up with changes to prevent failures at the same time as it proposed further steps to wall off problems with the batteries and vent any smoke or fire outside the planes.

Boeing officials said they had also hoped to make all the fixes at once rather than dividing them into temporary and longer-term changes. By delaying some changes, Boeing could have been exposed to more problems.

As a result, one big change under Boeing’s plan would be to redesign the batteries to place insulation inside and around each of the eight cells to minimize the risk that a short circuit or fire in one of the cells could spread to the others, as investigators have said occurred on the battery that caught fire in Boston on Jan. 7. Boeing might also adjust how tightly the batteries are packed.

Boeing would make other changes within the batteries to reduce the chance that vibrations, swelling or moisture could cause problems, industry officials said. Boeing has already been testing some of the changes. The plane maker believes it could rebuild the batteries by next month on the 50 jets that have been delivered to airlines. But federal officials are likely to move more slowly and demand more tests and assurances, and the final decision could rest with Mr. Huerta’s supervisors at the Transportation Department.

Federal officials said that if the fixes check out, the jets could start flying again by April. Boeing will also have to win back the confidence of the flying public.

Besides taking more steps to prevent short circuits from occurring, Boeing’s plan would enclose the battery within a sturdier metal container and create tubes to vent any hazardous materials outside the plane. It would add systems to monitor the activity inside each cell instead of just the battery as a whole.

Industry officials said there is enough space in the electronics bay to expand the container and add the vent tubes.

Until now, regulators have focused on the need to pin down the cause of the battery problems. But investigators, now weeks into their work, have been able to find only limited clues in the charred remains of the batteries in the Boston and Japan incidents.

The lithium-ion batteries weigh less but provide more energy than conventional batteries, and the 787s make greater use of them than other planes. The stakes are substantial for Boeing, which will have to pay penalties to some of the airlines that have been unable to use them. Boeing also cannot deliver more of the planes while they are grounded.

The company has orders for 800 additional planes. The jets rely as well on lightweight carbon composites and more efficient engines.

Boeing awarded the contract for the batteries to GS Yuasa, a Japanese firm, in 2005, and it won approval from the F.A.A. to use the batteries in 2007. Concerned about fires with smaller lithium-ion batteries in cellphones and laptops, the agency placed special conditions on Boeing’s use of the batteries that required containment and venting measures that have proved inadequate.

Advances in research have contributed to a better understanding of the risks since then. But Boeing, which was consumed with problems with other parts that delayed the introduction of the 787s by several years, did not significantly update the battery designs before it began delivering the planes in 2011. So Boeing’s plan to fix the problems also amounts to a belated incorporation of what has been learned about how to handle the risks.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/business/boeing-to-propose-battery-fixes-to-faa.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Consumers Win Some Mortgage Safety in New Rules

The rules, being laid out by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and taking effect next January, will also set some limits on interest-only packages or negative-amortization loans, where the balance due grows over time. Banks can make such loans, but the new rules would not protect them from potential borrower lawsuits if they do so.

And mortgage originators will in most cases be restricted from charging excessive upfront points and fees, from making loans with balloon payments and from making loans that load a borrower with total debt exceeding 43 percent of income.

With the sweeping rules, financial regulators are trying to substantially overhaul the market for home mortgages by creating a legal distinction between “qualified” loans that follow the new rules and are immune from legal action, and “unqualified” mortgages that continue practices that regulators have frowned on. The new rules are also aimed at getting banks to lend again, something they have been slow to do since the financial crisis and since the Dodd-Frank Act required new limits on bank activities.

Gone, the regulators hope, will be the unbridled frenzy that encouraged lenders to ignore whether borrowers could repay as long as the lenders could sell the mortgages to third parties, usually investment firms that sliced them up and resold them as part of complex financial derivatives.

By following the new rules, banks will be given a “safe harbor,” which ensures that they cannot be successfully sued for reckless or abusive lending practices, federal officials said Wednesday. Lenders must document a borrower’s ability to repay a loan; one way of doing that is to follow several guidelines issued Thursday that make a loan a “qualified” mortgage.

“When consumers sit down at the closing table, they shouldn’t be set up to fail with mortgages they can’t afford,” said Richard Cordray, the director of the consumer bureau. “Our ability-to-repay rule protects borrowers from the kinds of risky lending practices that resulted in so many families losing their homes.”

Mortgage bankers generally applauded the new regulations, saying that they clear up uncertainty that has hung over the home lending business since the financial crisis. In fact, most of the types of loans now being restricted, which were rampant during the inflation of the housing bubble, have been relatively rare in the last couple of years because many banks have tightened lending since the financial crisis.

“These rules offer protection for consumers and a clear, safe environment for banks to do business,” David Stevens, chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in an interview. “Now everybody knows if you stay inside these lines, you are safe.”

He added that he believed the consumer bureau “did a great job listening to stakeholders” in shaping the rule.

The new rules will not necessarily lead to an immediate expansion of credit, Mr. Stevens said, because nearly all mortgage loans being made currently are being sold to government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Their underwriting standards are not affected by the new rules.

In certain circumstances, the new lending rules can be bypassed for up to seven years, regulators said. New loans can be considered to be a “qualified loan” even if the borrower has a debt-to-income ratio of more than 43 percent as long as the loan is eligible for purchase or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, for example, or by one of several executive branch agencies, like the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The consumer bureau said that the exception was created “in light of the fragile state of the mortgage market as a result of the recent mortgage crisis.” Without the exception, the bureau said, “creditors might be reluctant to make loans that are not qualified mortgages, even if they are responsibly underwritten.”

Similarly, the new rules allow balloon payments in mortgages that are originated by and retained in the portfolio of small lenders that operate primarily in rural or underserved areas.

The legal protections offered to lenders by the qualified mortgage rule are not absolute. Lenders do not receive complete immunity from lawsuits in all circumstances. Some higher-priced loans, given to consumers with weak credit, can be challenged if the borrower can prove that he did not have sufficient income to pay the mortgage and other living expenses. And the rules do not affect the rights of consumers to challenge a lender for violating other federal consumer protection laws.

“We believe this rule does exactly what it is supposed to do,” Mr. Cordray said in a statement prepared for delivery Thursday morning in Baltimore, where the rules are being announced. “It protects consumers and helps strengthen the housing market by rooting out reckless and unsustainable lending, while enabling safer lending,” he said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/10/business/consumers-win-some-mortgage-safety-in-new-rules.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Health Spending Growth Stays Low for 3rd Straight Year

The rate of increase in health spending, 3.9 percent in 2011, was the same as in 2009 and 2010 — the lowest annual rates recorded in the 52 years the government has been collecting such data.

Federal officials could not say for sure whether the low growth in health spending represented the start of a trend or reflected the continuing effects of the recession, which crimped the economy from December 2007 to June 2009.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that “the statistics show how the Affordable Care Act is already making a difference,” saving money for consumers. But a report issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in her department, said that the law had so far had “no discernible impact” on overall health spending.

Although some provisions of the law have taken effect, the report said, “their influence on overall health spending through 2011 was minimal.”

The recession increased unemployment, reduced the number of people with private health insurance, lowered household income and assets and therefore tended to slow health spending, said Micah B. Hartman, a statistician at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In the report, federal officials said that total national spending on prescription drugs and doctors’ services grew faster in 2011 than in the year before, but that spending on hospital care grew more slowly.

Medicaid spending likewise grew less quickly in 2011 than in the prior year, as states struggled with budget problems. But Medicare spending grew more rapidly, because of an increase in “the volume and intensity” of doctors’ services and a one-time increase in Medicare payments to skilled nursing homes, said the report, published in the journal Health Affairs.

National health spending grew at roughly the same pace as the overall economy, without adjusting for inflation, so its share of the economy stayed the same, at 17.9 percent in 2011, where it has been since 2009. By contrast, health spending accounted for just 13.8 percent of the economy in 2000.

Health spending grew more than 5 percent each year from 1961 to 2007. It rose at double-digit rates in some years, including every year from 1966 to 1984 and from 1988 to 1990.

The report did not forecast the effects of the new health care law on future spending. Some provisions of the law, including subsidized insurance for millions of Americans, could increase spending, officials said. But the law also trims Medicare payments to many health care providers and authorizes experiments to slow the growth of health spending.

“The jury is still out whether all the innovations we’re testing will have much impact,” said Richard S. Foster, who supervised the preparation of the report as chief actuary of the Medicare agency. “I am optimistic. There’s a lot of potential. More and more health care providers understand that the future cannot be like the past, in which health spending almost always grew faster than the gross domestic product.”

Evidence of the new emphasis can be seen in a series of articles published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, now known as JAMA Internal Medicine, under the title “Less Is More.” The series highlights cases in which “the overuse of medical care may result in harm and in which less care is likely to result in better health.”

Total spending for doctors’ services rose 3.6 percent in 2011, to $436 billion, while spending for hospital care increased 4.3 percent, to $850.6 billion.

Spending on prescription drugs at retail stores reached $263 billion in 2011, up 2.9 percent from 2010, when growth was just four-tenths of 1 percent. The latest increase was still well below the average increase of 7.8 percent a year from 2000 to 2010.

Federal officials said the increase in 2011 resulted partly from rapid growth in prices for brand-name drugs.

Prices for specialty drugs, typically prescribed by medical specialists for chronic conditions, have increased at double-digit rates in recent years, the government said. In addition, spending on new brand-name drugs — those brought to market in the previous two years — more than doubled from 2010 to 2011, driven by an increase in the number of new medicines.

“In 2011,” the report said, “spending for private health insurance premiums increased 3.8 percent, as did spending for benefits. Out-of-pocket spending by consumers increased 2.8 percent in 2011, accelerating from 2.1 percent in 2010 but still slower than the average annual growth rate of 4.7 percent” from 2002 to 2008.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/us/health-spending-growth-stays-low-for-third-straight-year.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Small Employers Weigh Impact of Providing Health Insurance

“I’m scared to death of it,” he said. “I’m one of the ones sitting on the sidelines to see what’s really going to happen.”

Mr. Mayfield, who has 99 employees, said he was worried he would face penalties of $40,000 or more because he did not offer health insurance to many of his full-time workers — generally defined as those working an average of 30 hours a week or more. Ever since the law was enacted in 2010, opponents have argued that employers who were forced to offer health insurance would lay off workers or shift more people to part-time status to compensate for the additional cost. Those claims have drawn considerable attention — and considerable anger in response — in recent weeks.

John H. Schnatter, the chief executive of Papa John’s, the pizza chain, said some franchisees were likely to reduce their employees’ hours to avoid having to provide coverage. And an unhappy Denny’s franchise owner in Florida warned that he would raise prices 5 percent as a “surcharge,” adding that disgruntled customers could offset that by reducing their tips.

Some health care experts said comments like those came from outliers and sometimes resulted from confusion about a highly complicated new law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Many of the provisions do not go into effect until 2014. Federal officials are still tweaking the fine print, like defining exactly what constitutes a 30-hour workweek. Even so, restaurants and hotels are among the industries likely to be squeezed the hardest by the law because they are low-wage industries that do not offer coverage to most of their workers.

Most employers, even small businesses, already offer health insurance, and the federal law is not expected to have a significant impact on what they do over the next year or so. But businesses that rely heavily on low-income workers, many of whom do not make enough to afford their share of the cost of the insurance premiums, are being forced to rethink their business models.

Almost half of retail and hospitality employers do not offer coverage to all their full-time employees, according to a recent survey by Mercer, a benefits consultant.

“They’re all developing their strategies,” said Debra Gold, a senior partner with Mercer who advises several major retailers.

Many who oppose the requirement say the cost of providing health insurance could mean hiring fewer workers. “Any dollar that gets diverted, whether it’s through Obamacare or increased tax rates, puts franchisees one dollar further away from being able to expand their businesses,” said Don Fox, chief executive of Firehouse Subs, a fast-growing chain of 559 restaurants based in Jacksonville, Fla. At the 30 stores the corporation owns, only full-time managers are offered coverage. Mr. Fox is wrestling with whether to absorb the considerable cost of covering 100 more employees or pay the penalties — which would probably cost him less — but risk losing valued employees to competitors who choose to offer coverage.

Employee health coverage now averages nearly $6,000 for an individual plan. That is considerable for businesses like restaurants in which the majority of workers make $24,000 a year or less, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The foundation found that only 28 percent of companies that employ large numbers of low-income workers offer health benefits. “This is where the biggest set of hurdles is,” said Gary Claxton, an executive with Kaiser.

By 2014, businesses with 50 or more full-time employees will be expected to offer as yet undefined affordable coverage, based on an employee’s income. For employers that fail to offer such coverage, the law typically calls for a penalty of $2,000 a worker, excluding the first 30 employees. As evidence of how sensitive the issue is, Mr. Schnatter of Papa John’s took some heat for his initial statements about the possibility that franchisees would cut employees’ hours to avoid penalties or having to provide coverage. His comments, made during a public appearance, were reported by a local newspaper in Florida, The Naples News. After facing a storm of criticism, he wrote an opinion piece for The Huffington Post, in which he said he had only been speculating about the law’s potential impact on franchisees.

“Papa John’s, like most businesses, is still researching what the Affordable Care Act means to our operations,” he wrote. “Regardless of the conclusion of our analysis, we will honor this law, as we do all laws, and continue to offer 100 percent of Papa John’s corporate employees and workers in company-owned stores health insurance as we have since the company was founded in 1984.” Through a spokesman, Mr. Schnatter declined to comment further.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 30, 2012

An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of an executive with the Kaiser Family Foundation. He is Gary Claxton, not Glary.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/business/small-employers-weigh-impact-of-providing-health-insurance.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Mine Owner to Pay $200 Million in West Virginia Explosion

That amount includes $46.5 million allocated to the families of the victims and those who were injured in the blast, according to a source close to the investigation who requested anonymity because he was not permitted to speak about the arrangement.

Sources close to the investigation said the settlement, which will be announced at a news conference at 11 a.m. by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia, includes terms that protect Alpha — but not individual Massey executives — from prosecution.

The settlement, first reported by the Charleston Gazette, follows months of investigative work by federal officials from the Departments of Justice and Labor, as well as an independent commission appointed by the former West Virginia governor. The findings that had been made public placed the blame for the blast squarely on Massey and what investigators said was its reckless disregard for safety standards, but had stopped short of assigning criminal blame.

Tuesday’s announcement, which will be made public after federal investigators meet with families of the victims in West Virginia, will detail criminal responsibility, that Alpha, and in turn Massey, which it now owns, will accept.

In the past, Massey, which was purchased by Alpha in June, had dismissed investigators charges that its actions led directly to the disaster.

“It’s a record-level settlement,” said a former federal mine safety chief, J. Davitt McAteer, who conducted the independent state investigation, which issued the first findings about the explosion this year. “This is an amount that will get companies to pay attention. It has to affect their bottom line, otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.”

The settlement does not protect individual Massey managers, including the former chief executive, Don L. Blankenship, who have not been charged. In all 18 executives refused to be interviewed by federal investigators, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

In addition to the $46.5 million payout to victims and families, the agreement includes $80 million to bolster safety and infrastructure in all underground mines owned by Alpha and Massey; $48 million to establish a mine health and safety foundation to be used to finance academic research on mine safety; and about $35 million in fines and fees that Massey owed to the Mining, Safety and Health Administration, the branch of the Department of Labor that oversees the mining industry.

Under the terms of the agreement, Alpha must also put in place a plan that guarantees it has enough safety equipment, ventilation and methods of clearing potentially explosive rock dust out of all its underground mines within 90 days.

The company will be required to build a state-of-the-art training facility in West Virginia, including a mine lab where it will be able to simulate mining disasters.

A report released in March by the independent team appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and led by Mr. McAteer determined that the disaster could have been prevented if Massey had observed minimal safety standards.

That finding was in line with previous inquiries by federal officials who have said that in the year prior to the explosion, Upper Big Branch was cited by safety inspectors 515 times and ordered to shut down operations on 52 occasions.

The McAteer report accused Massey of having engaged in a pattern of negligence, which allowed a “perfect storm” of poor ventilation, equipment whose safety mechanisms were not functioning and combustible coal dust.

The investigators dismissed Massey’s claims that the blast had occurred because a sudden burst of methane had bubbled from the ground, saying evidence contradicting that theory included the bodies of the miners found near the main explosion. Only two had methane in their lungs.

Federal investigators have also said that Massey kept two sets of books so that accounts of hazardous conditions in Upper Big Branch would be kept hidden from inspectors.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ad3093323f1c70be76056a376b6d28f4

Federal Officials Extend E. Coli Ban

Federal food safety officials said on Monday that they would ban the sale of ground beef containing six toxic strains of E. coli bacteria that have increasingly been showing up in the food supply, taking a long-delayed step that was opposed by many in the meat industry.

“This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the head of food safety for the Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat. “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”

The new rule means that six lesser-known forms of E. coli will be treated the same as their much more famous cousin, a strain of the bacteria called E. coli O157:H7, which has caused thousands of illnesses and prompted the recall of millions of pounds of ground beef and other products.

That strain was banned from ground beef in 1994 after it caused a major outbreak of illness that sickened hundreds and killed four children. Until now, that one strain of E. coli was the only type of dangerous bacteria to be banned from any type of fresh meat. It is not illegal to sell meat containing other types of bacteria, like salmonella, in part because cooking typically kills the pathogens. Regulators have treated ground beef differently from other meats and poultry because Americans like to eat it rare and resulting illnesses can be deadly and children are often the victims.

In recent years, however, scientists found that several other strains of E. coli in food were making people sick and they identified the six most potent, which were called the non-O57s or the Big Six.

The American Meat Institute, an industry group, was highly critical of the new policy. “Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars — costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers,” the group said in a statement. “It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”

Citing arguments it has made previously in opposing such a step, the group said that other measures the industry is already taking to improve food safety are sufficient to help combat the additional strains of E. coli. 

While several outbreaks caused by the Big Six E. coli strains have been linked to produce, the group pointed to the fact that only one has been tied to ground beef. In that outbreak, which occurred last year, three people were sickened.

“There is no public health crisis related to those strains in ground beef,” the group said.  The agency will begin enforcing the new rule in March, to give the meat industry time to prepare for the change. The rule will apply to hamburger meat and trim or beef scraps that go into it, as well as some other products, like steaks that have been tenderized with machines that use needles to poke minute holes in the surface. The agency will start testing meat at packing plants in March.

Some meat processors have begun to test for the six strains in recent months in anticipation of federal action, but many others will most likely begin testing once the new rule takes effect.

Under the rule, any meat that is found to contain the Big Six E. coli, in tests by government or industry, will have to be diverted for use in cooked products. The bacteria is killed by heating the meat to 160 degrees.

While the new rule significantly expands the agriculture department’s ban, it does not include all forms of toxic E. coli. A highly virulent strain of the bacteria that caused thousand of illnesses and dozens of deaths among people who ate contaminated sprouts in Europe this summer is not one of the Big Six because it has not been detected as a cause of illness in the United States.

Dr. Hagen said the list of banned pathogens might continue to grow. “This is where we started and it doesn’t rule out the possibility that we would consider other pathogens in the future,” she said. Toxic forms of E. coli produce a poison called shiga toxin. It can cause bloody diarrhea and severe stomach cramps. The most severe cases can lead to kidney failure and death.

The Agriculture Department has been weighing an expansion of its E. coli ban for at least four years. A draft of the new rule was completed in January, but it was further delayed for months in a review by the Obama administration.

The meat industry argues that an expanded ban would lead to increased costs, including for testing and holding back meat from the fresh ground beef market.

The U.S.D.A. estimated that the new rule would cost the industry up to $10 million a year for testing and diverting meat to cooked products.

Dr. Hagen also said that the rule did not conflict with the Obama administration’s push to cut back on regulation that could increase costs for business at a time of economic hardship.

“There’s really no inconsistency between having a strong economy and having a safe food supply,” Dr. Hagen said. “The administration is committed to regulate only to the extent that is necessary to protect our people.” The U.S.D.A. first moved to ban the O157 form of E. coli in 1994, after an outbreak the previous year was linked to hamburgers sold at the Jack in the Box fast food chain.

At that time, the meat industry sued to block the ban, but the agency prevailed in court.

Several advocates wondered whether the industry would now take a similar step, or whether it would ask allies in Congress to seek to bar the Agriculture Department from carrying out or enforcing its new rule.

William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents food poisoning victims, said he hoped the industry would not fight the expanded rule. “I would certainly urge them not to do it,” said Mr. Marler. “They lost on 0157 and I think it sends the wrong message to consumers and trading partners.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f7599abee250569e175c374ce5f6200c

Lockheed Strengthens Network Security After Hacker Attack

Lockheed and RSA Security, which supplies coded access tokens to millions of corporate users and government officials, said they were still trying to determine whether the attack had relied on any data that hackers had stolen from RSA in March or if it had exploited another weakness.

Lockheed, which is based in Bethesda, Md., said on Saturday night that the attack, which occurred on May 21, was “significant and tenacious.” Lockheed officials said they had stopped the attack shortly after hackers got into a system, adding that no customer or company data was compromised.

Sondra Barbour, Lockheed’s chief information officer, sent a memo to the company’s employees on Sunday, saying that its systems remained secure. She said Lockheed had quickly shut down remote access to its network after the attack began.

Still, the attack was significant enough that it was described in briefing materials provided to President Obama, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said on Sunday. He said the damage was “fairly minimal.”

Government officials have said Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest military contractor, and other military companies face frequent attacks from hackers seeking national security data.

Officials at Lockheed and RSA Security, a division of the EMC Corporation that provides the SecurID brand of electronic access tokens, said they were working with federal officials to investigate how the attack occurred and who was behind it.

Ms. Barbour said Lockheed also had accelerated a plan to increase network security. The company has upgraded the SecurID tokens supplied by RSA and is resetting all user passwords. Lockheed also switched to eight-digit access codes from four-digit codes, which are randomly generated by the tokens.

Lockheed officials said on Friday that the attack on its systems might have been linked to one on the RSA network in March. At the time, RSA said it had sustained a data breach that could have compromised some of its security products. Its announcement shocked computer security experts, particularly because its systems are widely used.

Shortly after RSA announced that breach, Lockheed, like many other large companies, said it had added an additional password to the process employees used to connect to its system from remote locations.

One Lockheed executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security issues, said on Sunday that investigators “cannot rule out” a connection between the attacks on the RSA and Lockheed networks.

EMC said in a statement on Sunday that it was “premature to speculate” on the cause of the Lockheed attack.

Some blog items and articles have suggested that customers would back away from using RSA’s SecurID tokens. But Lockheed said it planned to continue using them, and EMC said it remained confident in the tokens.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=5d93c9a1190580fe52eee98888484e5f

Prescriptions: Double-Digit Insurance Rate Increases Get More Scrutiny

Federal officials announced new rules on Thursday that require health insurers that decide to raise their rates sharply to provide more justification for the higher premiums.

“We know increased scrutiny works,” said Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, of health and human services, in making Thursday’s announcement. She cited several recent examples of state regulators, in places like Rhode Island and North Dakota, being able to pressure health insurers to reduce their proposed increases.

The federal health care law requires states to review large rate requests, and the new regulation sets the threshold for review at 10 percent, beginning Sept. 1. Federal officials eventually plan to establish different thresholds for different states. Federal regulators can conduct the reviews if state insurance regulators do not.

The new rule is going into effect as insurers are announcing record profits and flush reserves. In a front-page article in The Times last week, the sizable gains were linked to how people have been delaying or forgoing care, even as insurers have still been raising premiums. They claim they expect health care costs to go up, once people start to go to the doctor when they feel as if they have more money in their pockets.

“Focusing on health insurance premiums while ignoring underlying medical cost drivers will not make health care coverage more affordable for families and employers,” said Karen Ignagni, the chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, in a statement responding to the new rule.

She also warned against “an arbitrary threshold for review” that may not adequately take into account the complicated array of factors that determine premium rates. [Read more…]

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