World celebrates Data Privacy Day

Data Privacy Day is January 28Events to educate consumers about data protection have been held to mark Data Privacy Day on January 28.

Online privacy breaches are a growing problem, and companies from My Space to Microsoft are racing to provide users with tips on safe management of online data.

Microsoft is hosting a forum at the San Francisco Public Library today which includes a panel discussion of online privacy among industry experts, advocates and policymakers, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

A popular business technology website has compiled a list of five most important online security tips. They include using security software and installing updates to operating systems, but also limiting the amount of personal information that users make available on social networking sites.

There is also an increasing talk about data encryption for businesses. Jamie Cowper of PGP, an enterprise security company, told the website that "an enterprise-wide approach to security must be taken which focuses on defending the data, not simply protecting the network."

He also stressed the need for better business oversight of employee practices when it comes to dealing with private data. "Data is now the currency of the internet and organizational policies must reflect that," he said.

The Data Privacy Day comes shortly after a controversial decision by the White House to exempt You Tube from federal privacy rules which was later reversed.

Top retirement funds lose $1 trillion

Retirement funds are still losing moneyA disturbing report from a leading money management newspaper suggests that U.S. pension funds have sustained heavy losses in 2008.

The survey by Pensions & Investments revealed that the loss of close to $1 trillion in the year ended September 2008 represented the worst decline of the 1,000 largest plans that it has tracked for 30 years.

The fourth quarter of 2008 made it even worse – based on P&I estimates assets fell another $754 billion, or 11.8 percent, to a cumulative loss of $1.7 trillion for the 15 months ended Dec. 31.

According to the newspaper’s editor Nancy K. Webman, this was largely due to collapsing returns from equity markets.

Kevin P. Quirk, founding partner and principal of industry researcher Casey Quirk & Associates, observed that the results may spell an end to the corporate defined-benefit plans.

Meanwhile, Watson Wyatt Worldwide reported that retirement assets of the 11 largest foreign pension markets fell 19 percent in 2008, wiping out some $5 trillion. The only country that was spared major losses was Germany, where funds are characterized by high bond allocations.

Consumer group decries proposed sale of medical records

Concerns about privacy and medical records raisedConsumer Watchdog has raised a number of privacy concerns regarding how electronic medical records, when introduced, will be able to be used.

The group has sent a letter to Congress commenting on reported actions by Google to weaken the ban on the sale of these records, among other issues.

Google reportedly hopes to sell patients’ medical information to advertisers on its new health database, the watchdog claims.

According to Congressional Watchdog, Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri has also added an amendment to the House version of the bill that permits pharmacists to sell Americans’ health data without people’s permission.

The group also objects to an amendment allowing firms to sell data for research purposes, which it suggests could lead to pharmaceutical companies and insurers exploiting this information.

"First and foremost, electronic medical records should be designed to benefit patients, not the corporate interests lobbying hard on Capitol Hill to get a piece of the $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies provided for this project," the letter states.

President Obama has pledged to introduce electronic medical records to improve communication within the health system. However, many questions remain about how to best protect patients’ privacy.

Drug companies found polluting India’s rivers

Pharma companies are dumping chemicals in India's riversResearchers have found high concentrations of numerous chemicals in treated wastewater in India which they say come from local pharmaceutical companies.

A team of scientists led by Joakim Larsson from Goteborg University in Sweden found that the water from the Patancheru Enviro Tech plant in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where these companies discharge their trash, contained 21 different drug components.

Some of these were in the highest concentration ever detected in nature, according to the Associated Press.

As this water eventually finds its way to human and animal water supply, the local populations – some of them extremely poor – are being exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

Given the presence of powerful antibiotics in the water samples, concerns have also been raised about proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria in the environment.

Dr A. Kishan Rao, who has treated patients in the region for 30 years, acknowledged the presence of resistance and told the AP that "European countries and the U.S. are protecting their environment and importing the drugs at the cost of the people in developing countries."

The Pancheru region of India is home to numerous companies producing drugs for international markets. By 2025 close to 80 percent of generic drugs sold in the United States will come from India and China, according to Global Insight.

Damning assessment of fed agencies’ civil liberties record

Not all agencies are reporting to Congress as they are supposed toGovernment records indicate that key federal agencies have fallen short on compliance with existing laws protecting civil liberties.

According to USA Today, the departments of Defense, State, and Health and Human Services have failed to appoint civil liberties protection officers and report to Congress on a regular basis on the safeguards they use to ensure that their programs respect public rights and privacy, despite a 2007 law mandating them to do so.

In addition to that, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has not convened publicly since 2006.

One expert quoted by the newspaper expressed concern at these findings given that the departments in question hold citizens’ passport and medical data.

Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told USA Today that if the agencies upheld the required standards, issues such as innocent people’s names appearing on terrorist watchlists could have been avoided.

Top members of the Senate Homeland Security committee have criticized the agencies and vowed to hold them accountable.

USA Today has verified that Homeland Security, Treasury, the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have complied with the law requiring eight federal departments and agencies to have civil liberties officers and file reports to Congress.

Kerry: Government-sanctioned torture weakened America

Kerry speaks out about torture and libertiesCommenting on President Obama’s first executive orders, a senior senator hails a new era but bemoans the damage sustained by America’s national security.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts wrote in a commentary published on that the eventual closure of Guantanamo Bay and CIA detention centers around the world, as well as the ban on torture, will restore America’s moral leadership by reaffirming its founding principles of the rule of law and respect for individual rights.

However, he stressed the difficulties lying ahead, including questionable evidence extracted using coercion that may be inadmissible in U.S. courts and the threat posed by some of the former detainees who are known to have returned to terrorist training camps.

Nonetheless, quoting Obama’s inauguration address in which he called on Americans to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Kerry welcomed what he saw as a new era in America’s relations with the outside world, and in particular with the Middle East.

Last Thursday Obama reversed the essence of the Bush administration’s approach to the prosecution of the war on terror by signing an executive order to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year and to ban harsh interrogations techniques.

Banks: Democrats’ stimulus plan may be insufficient

The stimulus package may not work as plannedResearchers from major U.S. banks claim that the impact of the proposed stimulus package may be smaller than meets the eye.

Alec Phillips, an economist at Goldman Sachs, was quoted by Reuters as saying that of the $825 billion package under consideration by Congress, only about $250 billion will make it into the economy in 2009.

His assessments are echoed by Richard Berner, from Morgan Stanley, who believes that the Obama team’s economic policy proposals – which rely on a mix of tax cuts and higher spending – "don’t get to the causes of this downturn – they mainly tackle its symptoms," according to the news service.

Barack Obama pledged to make an economic stimulus package a top priority of his new presidency – and still hopes to push relevant legislation through by mid-February – but recent reports indicate that he is facing mounting opposition from the Republicans.

And voices calling for the government to set up a "bad loans" bank to collect all the toxic debt are growing increasingly louder.

As the debate continues, on Wall Street bank shares have hit historic lows, with such erstwhile giants as Goldman Sachs trading at less than 40 percent of its value compared to last year.

ADHD drugs linked to hallucinations

ADHD medications may have side effectsMedications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children may cause hallucinations, according to new research.

Scientists at the FDA looked at the results of 49 clinical studies of drugs including Ritalin, Adderall, Strattera and other common medications used to treat ADHD – a condition affecting up to 7 percent of American children.

"The numbers of cases of psychosis or mania in pediatric clinical trials were small," the researchers wrote, according to Reuters. "However, we noted a complete absence of such events with placebo treatments."

In some of the cases analyzed, young children had the sensation that worms or insects were crawling on their bodies. Ninety percent of the time, the kids had no previous history of similar psychiatric problems.

Approximately 4.3 percent of the nation’s children take drugs to treat symptoms of ADHD, which include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Previous research of ADHD drugs has found other dangers, including an increased risk of stunted growth among children taking Ritalin.

More common side effects of these medications include sleep problems and loss of appetite.

Vitamin D ‘important for cognitive health’

Vitamin D supplements can help cognitive healthA deficiency of vitamin D can lead to cognitive decline among older people, according to new research.

Scientists from the Peninsula Medical School, the University of Cambridge and the University of Michigan found that levels of vitamin D were important for cognitive health.

In fact, as levels of vitamin D went down, the rate of cognitive impairment rose, they reported in the Journal of Geriatric Psychology and Neurology.

Dr. Iain Lang of Peninsula Medical School stressed the importance of getting a sufficient amount of vitamin D, particularly in areas where the winters are dark.

"Getting enough vitamin D can be a real problem – particularly for older people who absorb less vitamin D from sunlight," he said. "One way to address this might be to provide older adults with vitamin D supplements."

Identifying ways of preventing cognitive decline is important because these early memory problems can progress into dementia, Lang explained.

Folic acid and omega-3 fish oil are two other nutritional supplements that some health experts have recommended to help keep the mind sharp.

Privacy concerns about electronic health records

Health records may not let you opt outAmericans deserve the right to opt out of participating in a national database of electronic health records, according to the Institute for Health Freedom.

The IHF says that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains plans to create an electronic health record for every person in the U.S. by 2014.

Obama has said that electronic records will help facilitate the sharing of information, advance research and improve patient treatments.

However, the IHF points out that the bill does not include a provision for a patient to opt out or consent to participating in this system.

Sue A. Blevins of IHF explained that without those protections, individuals’ health records could be shared with hundreds of thousands of covered entities throughout the network.

"Unless people have the right to decide if and when their health information is shared or whether to participate in research studies, they don’t have a true right to privacy," she said.

The IHF has also called for patient consent to be added to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.


Report: Inflation on the horizon with Obama plan

We could see inflation in the next yearThe U.S. is likely to face rapidly escalating inflation within the year, as the government moves to print money quickly, a new report suggests.

According to CIBC World Markets, the Obama administration will print money "at an unprecedented rate" to fund an economic stimulus package and address the growing federal deficit.

Jeff Rubin, chief economist and strategist at CIBC World Markets, compared the coming inflation crisis to that of Argentina in the late 1980s and Zimbabwe today.

He added that there is also an American precedent for driving up inflation by printing money. For example, inflation was in the double-digits in 1947 after a World War II deficit, while the periods after the Korean and Vietnam wars also showed similar effects.

Rubin predicted that although consumer price index inflation is currently falling, it could be at more than 4 percent within a year.

"Already the U.S. money supply is growing at a nearly 20 percent rate in the last three months and the printing presses are just warming up," he said.

December figures showed consumer prices increased by the smallest percentage in the past 54 years.

White House online privacy policy exempts YouTube

YouTube places cookies on users' browsersTechnology bloggers are raising questions about whether the White House is adhering to privacy rules that prohibit federal agencies from using cookies on their websites.

Chris Soghoian writes on that the privacy policy listed on the White House’s website states that YouTube has been exempted from the ban on "persistent cookies."

"The persistent cookie is used by YouTube to help maintain the integrity of video statistics," according to a message on the site.

These long-term tracking cookies are issued by a website to a user’s browser, where they are stored. Cookies allow websites to identify users and track their video viewing habits.

Soghoian points out that the White House offers users an opportunity to avoid having a cookie issued to their browser by providing a link to download the file.

However, several tests carried out by Soghoian indicated that cookies were being issued as soon as he landed on the page, regardless of whether he pressed the "play" button.

This raises several questions about how federal agencies can comply with the rules and protect their users’ privacy while simultaneously employing web 2.0 content such as YouTube videos, he says.

Clean air extends life by 5 months, study says

Tackling pollution is a public health issueCleaning up air pollution has the power to significantly benefit public health, extending life expectancy by approximately five month, a new study shows.

Researchers at Brigham Young University and Harvard School of Public Health say that average life expectancy in 51 American cities has risen in the past couple of decades, in part due to cleaner air.

The scientists acknowledged that there are a number of factors that influence how long people live, but said the results show the country is "getting a substantial return on investments in improving our air quality."

"Such a significant increase in life expectancy attributable to reducing air pollution is remarkable," lead author Dr C. Arden Pope III commented.

As part of the study, the team compared two sets of data from the cities, which took into account changes in air pollution in 1980 and 2000, as well as life expectancy.

They also used statistical modeling to account for factors such as population change, income, demographics and smoking.

Long-term exposure to air pollution is thought to affect blood pressure, heart attack risk and the chances of dying from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

Obama signs order to shut down Guantanamo

Guantanamo will be closed within a yearPresident Barack Obama signed three executive orders on Thursday relating to the war on terror, showing a definitive break from the policies of the past administration.

One order requires the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to be shut down within a year, which Obama said would "restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great."

A second order states that terror interrogations must follow rules set out by the Army field manual, which ban physical abuse, coercion and waterboarding. However, the Associated Press reports the administration is considering adding some more aggressive tactics to the manual in the future.

Commenting on the decision to put an end to the use of harsher interrogation methods, Obama said that observing "core standards of conduct" during challenging times is an idea that dates back to the founding fathers.

Another order creates a task force for reviewing detention policies and procedures and reviewing individual cases. This will help determine where future detainees will be held.

The decision to close Guantanamo immediately generated controversy among some Washington lawmakers. Michigan representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, suggested the move could be "unnecessarily risking the safety of our nation," CNN reports.

Chopra: Obama should focus on alternative medicine

Herbal supplements may help AmericansIn the run-up to the election, President Obama promised to place healthcare reform near the top of his agenda.

In an editorial published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Deepak Chopra argues that by bringing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) into the mainstream, the country could boost its citizens’ long-term wellness and effect considerable cost savings.

Currently, conventional medicine fails to provide sufficient preventive care, Chopra says. He also claims that the majority of doctors are too reliant on the influence of pharmaceutical companies when it comes to choosing a treatment path.

"The era of patient-centered, humane care has long passed," he writes. "Yet, in the face of burgeoning alternatives, official medicine shrugs its shoulders and shuts its doors."

He points to examples in which science has failed to uncover a satisfactory answer as to why some people get sick and others don’t.

Chopra proposes that the Obama administration should begin listening to those who promote and practice CAM, as it can offers answers to many of the nation’s chronic health problems.

Tom Daschle, Obama’s pick for Health and Human Services Secretary, has in the past supported more exploration into the benefits of CAM.


The case against forcing banks to lend

Is easier credit a good thing?In the current economic climate, it is common to hear people speak about the need for banks to relax their lending standards and start approving loans again.

But is this really a good idea? Writing for CNN Money, Paul R. LaMonica argues that if financial institutions lend for the sake of it, the country will have a more difficult time pulling itself out of the crisis.

Instead, banks should use the funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to shore up their balance sheets and protect themselves against the fresh wave of credit defaults that are around the corner, he says.

Considering that irresponsible lending was a cause of the current recession, it would be a mistake to re-start a system of lending to people who cannot afford to pay the money back, according to LaMonica.

Daniel Alpert of investment bank Westwood Capital, called for a rethinking of "so-called stimulus."

"I don’t think massive consumer spending is the way out. The country needs a pickup in savings and investments in the future," he told the news provider.

Experts: Housing problems likely to get worse

Fewer houses are being builtFrom homebuilders’ perspective, 2009 is likely to be a washout year, a panel of housing experts has predicted.

The National Association of Home Builders said at a news conference that this year is expected to be worse than 2008 and a period where the market really hits "the bottom," the Associated Press reports.

A number of factors contribute to this outlook, including rising foreclosures and late payments on mortgages, as well falling house prices and housing starts.

Meanwhile, employment figures may have the most significant impact on whether or not the housing market will recover any time soon.

Frank Nothaft of Freddie Mac forecast that unemployment could reach 8.7 percent in the fourth quarter of the year, up from its current level of 7.2 percent.

"The single most important trigger event leading to [mortgage] delinquency is unemployment," he told the news provider.

One factor that may be holding potential homebuyers back from the market is that many mortgage lenders are employing strict criteria to determine who can obtain a loan.

And some existing homeowners have been stung by falling prices, meaning they currently owe more money on their mortgage than their property is worth.

Analysts cite dangers of government intervention

Government intervention in the market may not be a good ideaAs the damaging effects of the financial crisis continue to spread, there has been a tendency for people to turn to the government for solutions.

However, many analysts argue that government intervention in the free market may not be successful, Reuters reports.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Risks report, one of the problems at the heart of addressing these concerns is that the financial crisis is global, with the actions of a single government able to affect – and be affected by – countries around the world.

"That intervention will be both reactive and uncoordinated by a series of local, regional and national political actors," commented Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group in his 2009 outlook.

The world is moving toward a situation in which politics and the free market are necessarily intertwined, he said.

According to the WEF report, this could end up disrupting the natural system of incentives that encourage growth.

"Intervention in support of the financial and manufacturing sectors carries the risk of rewarding failure or propping up inefficient corporations and industries," it states, according to Reuters.

Companies who do not receive government funds may also find themselves at a disadvantage, it explains.

Disruptive plane passengers prosecuted under Patriot Act

Does disruption count as terrorism?Although the Patriot Act is intended to combat terrorists, it is also reportedly being used to fight back at unruly passengers.

A report in the Los Angeles Times describes how mother Tamera Jo Freeman was convicted of a federal felony defined as an act of terrorism, after she apparently engaged in some disruptive behavior on a plane.

In fact, her particular behavior consisted of spanking her two children, swearing at a flight attendant and throwing a can of tomato juice on the floor, according to the article.

At least 200 people on flights have been convicted of terrorism under the Patriot Act. The Times says most of these cases do not contain any evidence of hijacking or physical attacks, but have instead consisted of arguments, bad language and unruly behavior.

"We have gone completely berserk on this issue," security consultant Charles Slepian told the news provider. "These are not threats to national security or threats to aircraft, but we use that as an excuse."

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress 45 days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Gold rises on investor demand

Gold is seen by some as a safe investmentThe price of gold rose by more than 3 percent on Tuesday, as more investors turned toward the precious metal as a safe haven for their wealth.

According to Reuters data, gold reached an 11-day high of $860.40 an ounce, fuelled by demand from people seeking secure assets.

Standard Chartered analyst Daniel Smith told the news provider that investors are flocking to exchange-traded funds, which issue securities backed by stocks of gold.

"People are slowly building long positions in gold and commodities more generally," he said.

There appears to be a trend of investor mistrust of paper assets in an uncertain economic climate. In addition to exchange-traded funds, other vehicles for gold investment include mutual funds, as well as gold coins or bullion.

"With the exception of the 30-year Treasury bond, gold has held up better than other asset classes and has been in a general upward trend since 2001," Leo Larkin of Standard & Poor’s told Newsday.

Although a stronger dollar often prompts gold to fall, that did not seem to be the case on Tuesday. The dollar rose against the euro as officials released negative predictions about this year’s European economic forecast.

Mobile phones using GPS to advertise to users

Mobile phone companies are able to track users via GPSMobile phone companies are moving one step closer to developing a comprehensive way to track users’ location – and use that information to deliver targeted marketing.

Today’s phones have the ability use GPS chips and network-based cell-tower information to communicate in an individualized way with users, Reuters reports

For example, if a person is walking past a particular clothing store, their phone may offer them a discount related to that shop.

However, the technology may be moving more slowly than operators would like, due to privacy concerns about how people might react to the knowledge that their location is being shared with a service provider.

The article states that as of the end of 2008, both Verizon Wireless and Sprint have taken steps toward implementing location-based services, while AT&T has said it will begin development on its own version early this year.

"I think you’ll see the business pressures on other carriers will lead them to adopt a more open solution as well," Joel Grossman of data aggregator WaveMarket told the news provider.

This is not the first time GPS technology has been at the heart of a privacy debate. In recent months, some police forces have been pushing for further license to use GPS to track suspects.

Is water pollution causing male fertility problems?

Anti-androgens are in the water supplyNewly identified chemicals in the water supply could potentially be causing fertility problems in men, according to British scientists.

A group of chemicals known as anti-androgens have been discovered by researchers at Brunel University, the Universities of Exeter and Reading and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

These pollutants – which enter the water supply from discarded medicines, pharmaceutical treatments and agricultural pesticides – may be capable of having a feminizing effect on male fish, the scientists say.

In previous studies, the same teams had demonstrated how estrogens and estrogen-mimicking chemicals cause reproductive problems in male fish.

Now, they suggest the anti-androgens may also be contributing to the hormone disruption in fish. Additionally, they say the chemicals could potentially be linked to a male fertility problem called testicular dysgenesis syndrome.

Senior author Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter said the study draws attention to "the cocktail of chemicals" in the water supply which may harm reproduction.

"There are likely to be many reasons behind the rise in male fertility problems in humans, but these findings could reveal one previously unknown factor," he added.

Many think U.S. headed toward socialism

Is the U.S. going in the right direction?A new Fox News survey has found that half of Americans believe the recent stimulus packages and government support of private companies feels like a move toward socialism.

Some 50 percent of total respondents held this opinion, including 70 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of independents and 37 percent of Democrats.

At the same time, slightly more than half of all respondents said they think the best way to ease the country’s economic troubles is to encourage spending by individuals and businesses. Only 19 percent said government spending was the answer.

However, when it came to voicing opinions on President-elect Barack Obama’s specific stimulus plan, responses were more mixed.

Some 79 percent of Democrats said they supported it, along with 60 percent of independents. Just over half of Republicans opposed it.

"It will be interesting to see whether this level of support holds up once the details of the recovery plan come to light, especially given the public’s general preference for private rather than public solutions," commented Ernest Paicopolos of Opinion Dynamics, which conducted the poll for Fox News.

Obama has indicated that he believes strong government intervention is crucial to bring the economy out of recession.