December 6, 2007

News You Might Have Missed * Vol. 6, No. 49

Important but overlooked news from around the world.

QUOTED:

“I was expecting the site to tell me that I couldn’t do that. I’m just curious about these things so I tried it, and boom, there was somebody else’s name and somebody else’s data.”

— Canadian Jamie Laning changed one letter on a passport renewal Web site, and got surprising results (see “Privacy,” below).

CONTENTS:

*Top Stories*
Whither Cuba’s green thumb?
Dollar’s drop a drag for Americans abroad
The plagues of Uganda

*Privacy*
Data snooping and its discontents

*Environment*
Here comes the flood


TOP STORIES

* Whither Cuba’s Green Thumb?

Floods, storms, drought and heat, plus an array of economic concerns, are taking their toll on Cuban agriculture.

Inter Press Service reports that 75 percent of Cuban land used for crops and grazing has fallen into disuse, even as produce prices increase and the variety of crops available diminishes.

Raul Castro, who heads the Communist government there, said earlier this year that “structural and conceptual changes will have to be introduced” to address the situation.

Armando Nova, a Cuban academic in Havana, told Inter Press that increased local control over farming decisions, profitmaking, and allowing farmers to sell their crops directly at local markets, rather than mandatory sales to state agencies, are all necessary to boost cultivation and food production.

Source:

“AGRICULTURE-CUBA: Waiting for Announced Reforms”
Inter Press Service, December 5, 2007

* Dollar’s Drop a Drag for Americans Abroad

The good fortune of the Euro — not to mention the Czech Crown — makes for dismal tidings for American expatriates and their European colleagues paid in dollars.

According to The Prague Post, employees of American firms and institutions in the Czech Republic have taken the equivalent of a 15 percent salary cut as a result of the dollar’s devaluation.

U.S.-based tax-exempt organizations in the Czech Republic, with their fundraising base back home, are also taking a hit.

One economist told the Post that the dollar’s fall could eventually drag down foreign currencies with it, as the American market for imported consumer goods diminishes.

Source:

“Free fall: Expats paid in dollars watch their salaries drop”
The Prague Post, November 28, 2007

* The Plagues of Uganda

Concurrent outbreaks of several diseases in Uganda have health officials there on the defensive, reports The Monitor in Kampala.

Even as the country struggles to contain an ebola outbreak, new cases of meningitis, cholera, bubonic plague and yellow fever are turning up in different parts of the country. Suspected cases of hepatitis have also been reported.

Some of the diseases have claimed dozens of lives so far, and thousands have been infected.

According to the newspaper, simple behavior changes among individuals and authorities can help prevent disease transmission.

One doctor decried sex discriminiation in Uganda’s frontier region, where women sleep on the floor and are thus more vulnerable to bubonic plague-bearing fleas.

Men take the beds for themselves, out of reach of fleas that can only jump six inches off the ground.

Critics in Uganda’s parliament ripped the government for withholding details on the ebola outbreak, and for failing to deliver aid monies to the affected districts in time.

Source:

“Four Epidemics Hit Country”
The Monitor (Uganda), December 5, 2007


PRIVACY

* Data Snooping and its Discontents

The limits of data privacy are being tested in Western democracies, as governments and corporations push for greater access with sometimes unexpected results.

British authorities demanded that a group of about 30 animal rights activists hand over the keys to encrypted files stored on computers that had been seized by police.

The demand is the first of its kind under a recently enacted measure of the nation’s controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, reports BBC News.

The provision of the law that deals with decryption was written to combat pedophiles and terrorists, although many critics say it is flawed and possibly even unenforceable.

One of the animal rights activists, choosing to remain anonymous, told the BBC, “Even if they hate our guts my personal view is that this is a matter where there’s great issues of public interest that should be being talked about.”

The Crown Prosecution Service would not comment on the demand.

In Canada, new concerns surfaced about the safety of private information once it gets in the hands of government officials.

In Canada, a man using a government Web site to renew his passport found that he could access the personal information of other passport applicants — including social security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers — by changing one character in the Web site’s Internet address.

“I was expecting the site to tell me I couldn’t do that,” Jamie Laning told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “I’m just curious about these things so I tried it, and boom, there was somebody else’s name and somebody else’s data.”

Laning notified authorities about the lapse and the online passport renewal feature was temporarily suspended while officials worked to fix the problem.

In the United States, there was much attention paid to the decision by popular social networking site Facebook to end an advertising program that tracked users’ online purchases — but less reported was a court decision involving the personal privacy of the company’s founder.

A court ordered that a Web site need not take down an article that made public some personal information of Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

The article, on 02138, a Web site for Harvard alumni (it is not officially linked to the university) concerned some of Zuckerberg’s former classmates who are now suing him, saying that he stole the idea for Facebook from them.

The site also posted some documents that were part of that lawsuit, including Zuckerberg’s handwritten application to Harvard.

Sources:

“Campaigners hit by decryption law”
BBC News, November 20, 2007

“Passport applicant finds massive privacy breach”
Globe and Mail, December 4, 2007

“Facebook executive caught out in privacy row”
Times Online, December 3, 2007


ENVIRONMENT

* Here Comes the Flood

Heavy weather the world over is raising concerns about the potential of a flood-prone future, and what that means for vulnerable populations.

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, 24-foot waves closed shipping channels, and 13 inches of rain in one 30-hour period shut down commerce, damaged streets and highways, and brought down trees and power lines, reports Bloomberg.com.

Five days of continuous rain have had a catastrophic effect in Algeria, causing a house and a bridge to collapse as rivers burst their banks and floodwaters surged through suburban Algiers. At least eleven lives were lost, reports Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 40 million people worldwide are vulnerable to similar catastrophes, as storms and rising oceans threaten 136 port cities around the world.

By 2070, the number of people at risk are predicted to grow to approximately 150 million.

Cities on river deltas, 38 percent of which are in Asia, were cited as especially vulnerable. This includes Osaka-Kobe, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Ho Chi Minh City.

But Western cities and metropolitan areas, such as New Orleans, New York City, Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, as well as Amsterdam, are also on the list.

In Africa, disaster preparation will be taking a step forward with the expansion of satellite-based weather monitoring, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

The Group on Earth Observation, a 72-nation cooperative, meet on November 30 to seal an agreement that will provide monitoring of extreme weather conditions in Africa.

This includes sharing satellite data and computer models that forecast up to three months into the future, and can also track potential disease conditions, air quality and population changes.

According to the Monitor, a “cold-war style competition for African hearts and minds” may be in the works, as Brazil and China ramp up a competing planetary observation service, the results of which will also be provided to African nations for free.

Sources:

“U.S. Northwest Floods Snarl Roads, Rails and Shipping”
Bloomberg, December 5, 2007

“Flooding in Algeria kills at least 11 after days of rain”
Agence France-Presse, November 29, 2007

“Major Asian cities face risk of catastrophic floods”
Agence France-Presse, December 5, 2007

“A plan for monitoring Africa’s weather”
Christian Science Monitor, December 5, 2007


Editors: Josh Wilson, Will Crain

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