Laptop searches raise civil liberties questions

an invasion of privacy?Federal law enforcement officials claim that the power to search travelers’ laptops without reasonable cause allows them to potentially nab terrorists, those who possess child pornography and other threats to the U.S.

However, for those whose laptops are investigated, the measure can feel like an invasion of privacy and a violation of their liberties, according to an Associated Press report.

Some travelers say that border agents have investigated photos on their cameras, audio files on MP3 players and their most recent Google keyword searches.

Critics of these powers suggest that the government may currently be violating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

They have also raised concerns about racial profiling and the ability for border agents to access confidential business data, trade secrets, medical records and more.

Representative Eliot Engel told the news provider that there is a difference between protecting the country and trespassing on personal liberties.

"It’s outrageous that on a whim, a border agent can just ask you for your laptop. We can’t just throw our constitutional rights out the window," he explained.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently the focus of a lawsuit that is requesting the agency make public its records regarding border searches.

Scientists give OK to “brain drugs” for healthy people

Should people be encouraged to take prescription drugs?Many people already take prescription drugs to help focus their minds, so why shouldn’t healthy people also be allowed to do so legally?

That is the subject of a new opinion article published in an online edition of the journal Nature.

In the piece, several experts suggest that more research be done about the pros and cons of healthy people taking medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.

These stimulants are currently prescribed for young people who suffer from attention deficit disorder and similar conditions.

The seven international co-authors of the article cited statistics stating that as many as one in four U.S. college students have used prescription stimulants for alternative purposes, such as to help them study.

In fact, these pills may be able to provide benefits to further groups of people, the scientists suggested, recommending that the research community begin a conversation on the topic.

Not everyone was positive. Responding to the article, behavioral pediatrician Dr. Russell Reiff told the San Francisco Chronicle that the attitude taken may "fuel the fire of what we call prescribing pressure," in which pills are seen as the first answer to a problem.

"These medications can have very significant side effects," he added.

Americans seeing record foreclosures

The foreclosure rate is risingThe number of American households facing foreclosure has risen to a record high, according to statistics from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Some 3 percent of families are facing the prospect of losing their home – a proportion which has increased by 76 percent compared with last year’s figures.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people are also falling behind on their mortgage payments, rising to 7 percent from 5.59 percent in 2007.

The MBA suggested that the figures could grow even worse in the months to come, due to the large number of negative economic indicators the country is facing.

"We have not gone into past recessions with the housing market as weak as it is now, so it is likely that a much higher percentage of delinquencies caused by job losses will go to foreclosure than we have seen in the past," commented Jay Brinkmann, MBA’s chief economist.

The U.S. government recently admitted that the country had begun a recession in December 2007 – an announcement that did not come as a surprise to many financial experts.

CPSC sued over toxic chemicals in toys

Some toys could harm a child's healthThe U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is not adequately protecting American children from toxic chemicals in toys, according to the claims of a new lawsuit.

As of February 10, 2009, the CPSC will no longer allow toys containing phthalates to be sold in the U.S. Phthalates are toxic chemicals that have been linked to abnormal reproductive development in some studies.

However, the group said that even after the ban is enacted, toys manufactured before that date will still be permissible for sale.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen say in their lawsuit that this loophole "will cause both direct harm to individuals exposed to these chemicals in children’s products and consumer confusion about which products sold in stores comply with the phthalate ban," according to Reuters.

They are calling for the CPSC to change the law so that there is a complete ban on phthalate-laden toys after February 10th.

Earlier this year, a study published in Pediatrics suggested that babies absorb phthalates from products such as baby lotion, baby powder and baby shampoo.

Who is watching the government while it watches you?

The government has access to personal dataCivil liberties experts have warned the House Homeland Security Committee that too little oversight is given to the government’s use of personal data.

This information, which is collected from a myriad of sources ranging from cell phone records to credit card data, is not currently managed satisfactorily, according to groups which addressed Congress on Wednesday.

One of the criticisms levied at the government’s data-mining program – which seeks to identify terrorists – is that it is ineffective.

"Predictive data mining is akin to alchemy or astrology in its relationship to science," Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union said, according to

Others raised concerns that there are not sufficient limits set on how this information can be used once it is collected.

These issues should be addressed by the next administration or the country risks compromising the civil liberties of its citizens, the groups suggested.

"We have to set priorities that maintain the values of a free society," said Laura Murphy of Laura Murphy & Associates.

In the past few months, the Bush administration has come under fire for the surveillance methods it has used as part of its anti-terrorism measures.

Can the insurance industry be trusted with healthcare?

The insurance industry supports mandatory coverageThe lobbying group for the health insurance industry has said that the sector supports universal coverage and will work to improve access at reasonable cost.

However, critics have claimed that the plan would simply place control of healthcare in the hands of the firms – which some say have a history of placing profits above quality.

America’s Health Insurance Plans announced its plan at the National Press Club, describing a system in which all Americans would be required to purchase insurance. In return, the group said providers will stop denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

In addition, the lobbyists suggested that the insurance options are streamlined so that every person has a basic plan they can supplement with additional options if needed.

The plan also contains a proposal for a tax credit from the government to help make coverage more affordable, as well as ideas for cutting unnecessary treatments and incentives for raising the quality of care.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he will make healthcare a priority in the first couple of years of his presidency; however, he has said he opposes mandatory coverage.

Watchdog: More transparency needed on use of bailout money

How is your money being spent?Taxpayers have not been provided with clear information about how their money is being used as part of the rescue of the financial services industry, a congressional watchdog has claimed.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the Troubled Asset Relief Program demands more oversight by the Treasury than it is currently being given.

In a report, the GAO recommended that the Treasury collaborate with bank regulators to determine whether they are following the requirements of TARP, helping to ensure integrity, accountability and transparency.

The group also called for a stronger communication strategy from the government which would clearly spell out any changes, "to avoid information gaps and shocks."

Some lawmakers and citizens have expressed surprise that Paulson has shifted the focus of TARP away from purchasing bad debts from banks – which was one of its original stated purposes. Instead, money is being directed toward buying equity stakes in financial companies.

A third recommendation made by the GAO involved the creation of a "definitive transition plan" for the Treasury, which would help smooth the change to a new administration led by Barack Obama.

Nation “lacks food protection plan”

Group urges overhaul of embattled food agencyFood protection systems in the United States are in need of "a major overhaul" having avoided serious restructuring for more than 100 years.

That’s the claim of the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), which is calling for root-and-branch reform of the Food and Drug Administration.

And according to TFAH executive director Jeff Levi, any such overhaul must be matched by major investment to drive the required change.

"The FDA should articulate to Congress and the American people what resources are needed over the long-term to achieve the goals and define milestones for how to measure success," he remarked.

The call for the FDA to be given greater weight comes at a turbulent time for the agency as it seeks to brush off criticism of its handling of the recent melamine scare relating to milk-based products from China.

According to the TFAH, nearly one in four Americans get sick each year as a result of food-borne illness. This is at an estimated cost to the economy of $44 billion.

Yesterday the FDA published an update on its food protection program, which was officially launched a year ago and is designed to improve food safety in domestic and imported produce.

Should you create an offshore asset protection trust?

Protect your assets offshoreAs the financial landscape of the U.S. changes, people may be looking around for different strategies to protect their wealth.

Writing on his blog, former U.S. representative from Maryland Bob Bauman suggests that those who would like to make sure their assets are safe from taxes and similar threats may want to consider creating an offshore asset protection trust (APT).

Bauman points out that President-elect Barack Obama sponsored the Anti-Tax Haven Act in 2007, which gives the Treasury Secretary the power to issue rules that limit how Americans manage their money offshore.

He suggests that an APT offers both a strong level of defense for your assets and a robust privacy guarantee.

APTs in offshore haven countries are able to defend against civil judgments in the U.S., Bauman claims, citing a shorter statute of limitations on suits, as well as "far greater privacy, diversification of financial risk and better investment flexibility."

However, he adds that although APTs offer significant asset protection, they do not help investors make savings on most U.S. taxes.

Is the drug approval system putting people at risk?

Drug companies are hurrying to market new drugsThe system of drug approvals that ensures new medications get placed on the market as quickly as possible may be compromising people’s safety, it has been suggested.

According to Dr. David Kao of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, important safety guidelines are being bypassed in favor of expediency.

He explains that it is now possible for a pharmaceutical medication to be placed on sale on the internet within 90 minutes of receiving approval.

One of the dangers of releasing drugs onto the market so quickly is that people are more likely to be placed at risk before all of the facts are unknown.

For example, pharmaceutical giant Merck had an anti-inflammatory drug, Vioxx, on sale for five years before its true risks were identified.

More recently, the same company began marketing a new treatment for high blood sugar levels approximately 14 days after it had been approved.

The Prescription Drug User Fee Act was passed by Congress in 1992, allowing the Food and Drug Administration to collect money from pharmaceutical firms to fund the drug approval process.


Can meditation conquer depression?

Meditation is a natural way to fight depressionA therapy based on traditional Buddhist meditation may be more effective than conventional drugs for treating depression, a new study suggests.

Many people who try antidepressants to treat their mental health condition may be put off by the side effects.

Now, scientists at the University of Exeter have suggested that mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could offer benefits without these effects.

Subjects taking part in an eight-week trial were instructed in a variety of meditation exercises that were based on Buddhist techniques. These included methods of focusing on the present instead of the past or future in order to take control of their feelings.

The participants were also followed for 15 months after the study ended. Fewer than half (47 percent) of those who learned MBCT had suffered a relapse, compared with 60 percent of people taking antidepressants.

"I think we have the basis for offering patients and GPs [doctors] an alternative to long-term anti-depressant medication," said researcher Willem Kuyken.

Approximately 15 million Americans suffer from depression, according to figures from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Could America be set for a VAT?

Many countries use a VATBarack Obama won the November presidential election with questions still lingering for many about whether his tax proposals would actually benefit the average American – particularly as the economy sinks into a recession.

Now, an article in Fortune has suggested that the U.S. may be forced to impose a value-added tax (VAT) in order to raise needed funds.

In a VAT system, tax is applied to a product at each stage of its production, with suppliers and sellers sharing the tax burden with consumers.

Many countries around the world already employ a VAT. According to the publication, nearly half of the revenue raised by the French government is derived from the tax.

Some say that America could soon be facing the same problems that other nations saw in the past.

"The bottom line is that the income tax cannot support the level of spending that’s projected, something other countries faced years ago," Robertson Williams of the Tax Policy Center told the news provider.

However, others point out that when the government increases a VAT, it can slow down a country’s economic growth. Meanwhile, the middle class may end up paying more on staples such as food and energy, which also may stand in the way of growth.

Does pollution contribute to obesity?

Scientists draw link between pollution and obesityThere’s no doubt that obesity is an American health epidemic that is connected to a rise in diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions.

Now, scientists are suggesting that commonly found environmental pollutants could actually be helping fuel obesity.

Tributyltin – an industrial chemical employed as a pesticide, among other uses – may be contributing to obesity by influencing receptors that cause fat cells to grow.

These retinoid X receptors (RXRs) move into cell nuclei and activate genes that grow fat storage cells and affect metabolism.

According to a study published in BioScience, tributylin and other similar chemicals may have biological effects on RXRs.

Researchers Taisen Iguchi and Yoshinao Katsu suggest that it is "plausible" to look at the rise in pollution as connected to the increase in obesity over the past 40 years, citing other substances such as bisphenol A that have already been linked to cellular changes in the human body.

Previous research has suggested that childhood obesity may be influenced by certain chemicals the child’s mother is exposed to while pregnant.

Protecting your privacy and laptop is important this holiday season

Laptops can be easily lost or stolenEvery 53 seconds a laptop is stolen, according to technology research and advisory firm Gartner, while up to 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports each week.

But following these simple tips from Absolute Software can help to keep your computer out of the Grinch’s hands this Christmas traveling season.

Backing up valuable data will minimize the loss if a laptop is stolen, and since the information on the laptop is often more valuable than the machine itself it’s important to treat it with care.

Recovery and data protection software may be able to track down your computer if it is lost or stolen.

When traveling it’s also a good idea to keep your laptop with you at all times rather than checking it – which risks having it broken or stolen while in transit.

It’s a safe bet that your laptop will have to go through the metal detector with a number of others, so labeling it and making sure it stands out will help make sure it doesn’t get lost or mixed up, the software firm advises.

And remember your laptop isn’t just in danger while traveling – it can also be stolen while in a hotel room, so it’s a good idea to place it in the room’s safe if possible.

Remember also that information can be stolen even when you are in possession of your machine. Using an unsecured wireless network is a two way street.

Although you can access the network easily, it might be just as easy for someone to access the information on your computer.

Gold tipped for sharp rise

Gold is widely seen as a safe haven for concerned investorsThe price of gold could rise as high as $2,000 per ounce in 2009.

That’s according to Citigroup, which last week said continued uncertainty on the international markets may bump up the price of the precious metal to more than double its current value.

Tom Fitzpatrick, the bank’s chief technical strategist, said world markets would not return to normal following the magnitude of the actions taken to tackle the financial crisis, the UK’s Telegraph reported.

"When the dust settles this will either work, and the money [central banks] have pushed into the system will feed [through] into an inflation shock."

"Or it will not work because too much damage has already been done, and we will see continued financial deterioration, causing further economic deterioration, with the risk of a feedback loop," he was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

Almost two thirds of the 35 experts surveyed by Bloomberg last week believed gold – widely viewed as a safe investment in times of economic turmoil – to be a good buy, according to the news provider.

Despite such predictions, gold had fallen 5.5 percent to $774 per ounce at midday EST in Monday trading.

Study raises questions about bias of published drug trials

Some drug trials may be reported with biasDrug trials submitted to the Food and Drug Administration may differ from the versions that are published, suggesting that healthcare professionals may be reading biased data, new research has found.

Findings published in the journal PLoS Medicine reveal that discrepancies between FDA-submitted results and published results were discovered among several trials analyzed by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco.

The differences included the addition or omission of outcomes, adjustments in statistical significance of outcomes and amendments to the overall conclusion of drug trials.

Medical journals and literature tended to feature more favorable presentations of these medications, the researchers concluded.

"The information that is readily available in the scientific literature to health care professionals is incomplete and potentially biased," the study authors wrote.

To reach their conclusions, the team analyzed 164 trials relating to 33 new drug applications. A total of nine were found to differ, in favor of the drug in question.

The FDA requires that pharmaceutical companies submit a new drug application before they can begin selling a medication.

Melamine-tainted baby formula found in U.S.

Melamine has made it into American formulaTraces of the toxic chemical melamine have been discovered in samples of U.S. baby formula, the Food and Drug Administration has admitted.

However, in an interview with the Associated Press, the FDA said that the low levels detected are considered by the department to be "perfectly fine" and not dangerous to public health.

In China, melamine has been linked to the death of at least three babies, as well as the illness of tens of thousands of other children. The FDA previously said that it would not set a limit on "acceptable" levels of the chemical in U.S. formula.

Documents obtained by the AP reveal that out of 77 samples of infant formula, one product contained trace amounts of the chemical. Additionally, cyanuric acid – a byproduct of melamine – was discovered in a different product.

The FDA said that the melamine had likely contaminated the formula during the manufacturing process and had not been added deliberately. Trace amounts are defined as under 250 parts per billion.

"There’s no cause for concern or no risk from these levels," agency spokesperson Judy Leon told the New York Times.

Poll: Americans oppose auto bailout

Most Americans do not support a lifeline to Detroit carmakersThe majority of Americans believe that automakers do not deserve to receive government funds, according to the results of a new survey.

Los Angeles Business’ most recent Business Pulse survey reveals that nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of respondents are not in favor of a rescue package to help the auto industry.

Meanwhile, 22 percent said they would support such a measure and 6 percent were undecided.

Comments left by readers of the website further reveal that many people feel fed up with Washington’s approach to solving the country’s economic woes.

One reader claimed that the government refuses to take a complex view of the economy, instead opting for simple solutions.

Someone else expressed frustration with the number of groups who seem to be stepping forward to request federal money.

And another respondent suggested that "the only serious cure for what’s wrong with the U.S. auto industry includes restructuring the legacy of debt, pensions and overpriced (by world market standards) labor agreements."

Carmakers’ request for $25 billion has also been met with skepticism by Congressional lawmakers, who said that industry leaders would need to submit a viable plan for the future before they receive a lifeline.

Do some breast cancers go away on their own?

Are mammograms necessary?As a regular precaution against breast cancer, women are advised to undergo regular mammograms – but what if some tumors naturally disappeared on their own?

The findings of a controversial new study suggest that some breast cancers may disappear without intervention.

Norwegian and U.S. researchers examined the incidence of breast cancer among 50 to 64-year-old women who had mammograms every two years, comparing the results with those who were screened only once over the entire period of the study.

They found that the participants who were screened more frequently had a 22 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who had less frequent mammograms.

Study co-author Dr Jan Maehlen told WebMD that some detected tumors are in fact "pseudo-cancers" that "will stop growing and shrink and disappear over a course of perhaps two years."

However, some experts – including the American Cancer Society – have warned people not to jump to conclusions based on the preliminary findings of a single study.

They recommended that women continue to get mammograms on a regular basis to help protect their health.

Housing industry to join the bailout line

Industries fight for government fundsFirst, it was the financial industry requesting federal funds. Next, automakers said they needed a bailout, too. And now, the housing sector is apparently gearing up to ask the government for a $250 billion rescue package.

House-builders are lobbying for a Fix Housing First stimulus, including a 10 percent tax credit for homebuyers and a federal subsidy to lower mortgage rates, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The sector claims that action is needed to prevent the country from falling into a cycle in which declining home prices negatively affect banks that hold mortgage-backed securities, which in turn depresses the economy further.

However, some critics argue that the plan favors encouraging new home purchase, instead of modifying existing loans held by homeowners.

They raise concerns about the danger of artificially inflating the housing market, creating demand that does not exist.

"The government does not have the tools to rewrite the laws of supply and demand. By artificially increasing prices, we are encouraging more building," Harvard economist Edward Glaeser told the news provider.

It is still uncertain how Capitol Hill would respond to the homebuilder’s request. Congress recently denied funds to automakers, saying that companies needed to present a viable plan before they could receive taxpayers’ money.

House prices continue to drop

Is your house still a worthwhile investment?Those who hoped that the rising value of their property would help see them through their golden years may have already started re-evaluating – now, new figures show the slide in house prices is continuing.

Figures from the S&P/Case-Shiller indexes revealed a double-digit decline nationwide, compared with the same period last year.

Prices fell by an annual rate of 16.6 percent during the third quarter, while its separate index of 10 major U.S. cities showed a decline of 18.6 percent.

"The turmoil in the financial markets is placing further downward pressure on a housing market already weakened by its own fundamentals," commented Case-Shiller index committee chairman David Blitzer.

He said that current house prices in many areas are comparable to what they were in early 2004.

Phoenix, Las Vegas and San Francisco were the three metropolitan areas that showed the steepest drop compared with 2007. In all three locations, average house prices are around 30 percent less than they were last year.

At the same time, a separate report from the National Association of Realtors revealed that existing home sales were down 3.1 percent month-on-month in October.

Privacy worries surround ID-scanning machines

Travellers may have their IDs scanned when they cross bordersNew radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that is able to read information about travelers who are crossing borders has raised concerns among privacy advocates.

The Department of Homeland Security has already installed machines that read data contained on government-issued ID cards at five border crossings, USA Today reports.

These devices work by scanning the computer chips embedded in travellers’ passports, passcards and driver’s licenses, then displaying the data on a screen for border patrol agents.

However, privacy advocates have warned that people’s personal information is at risk of being accessed by others – including terrorists – at distances of up to 50 feet.

"There’s this strange rush to a fancy of shiny new technology," Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the news provider, adding that the ID cards are actually "quite vulnerable" to misuse or a data breach.

Homeland Security has suggested that the new process will be more efficient and safer than the previous system of manually checking IDs. It has also emphasized that the data on the chips are encoded.

In August, privacy concerns were raised when the government announced that it would be retaining records of Americans’ border crossings by land for a period 15 years.

Obama aide says he may postpone repeal of tax cuts

Tax cut repeal in questionDuring the recent hard-fought presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised that he would put an end to tax cuts for wealthy Americans that had been put in place by President Bush.

Now, according to one of his aides, he is considering letting those tax cuts expire in 2011 as scheduled, instead of rolling them back on an earlier schedule.

The move would be intended to stimulate economic recovery in the U.S., alongside additional tax cuts for lower-income and middle-income Americans, David Axelrod said on Fox News Sunday.

"The main thing right now is to get this economic recovery package on the road, to get money in the pockets of the middle class, to get these projects going, to get America working again, and that’s where we’re going to be focused in January," Axelrod said, according to Reuters.

Obama is currently charged with balancing the need to plug an enormous federal deficit with the potentially dangerous effects that raising taxes could wreak on the economic situation.

The president-elect has also hinted that he will call for a larger-than-expected stimulus package for the country in the coming months.