8 million victims in the world’s biggest cyberheist

An international criminal gang has pulled off one of the most audacious cyber-crimes ever and stolen the identities of an estimated eight million people in a hacking raid that could ultimately net more than $5.6 billion in illegal funds.

A Sunday Herald investigation has discovered that late on Thursday night, a previously unknown Indian hacker successfully breached the IT defences of the Best Western Hotel group’s online booking system and sold details of how to access it through an underground network operated by the Russian mafia.

It is a move that has been dubbed the greatest cyber-heist in world history. The attack scooped up the personal details of every single customer that has booked into one of Best Western’s 1312 continental hotels since 2007.

Amounting to a complete identity-theft kit, the stolen data includes a range of private information including home addresses, telephone numbers, credit card details and place of employment…

Although the security breach was closed on Friday after Best Western was alerted by the Sunday Herald, experts fear that information seized in the raid is already being used to pursue a range of criminal strategies.

The numbers get bigger every time we cover one of these stories.

If the basics of security practices aren’t in play 24/7, sooner or later the gate yawns open and crooks drive a truck into the vault!

Biggest desalination plant in Western Hemisphere OK’d for California

Plans for the biggest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere has received final California state approval clearing the way for construction to start next year and for the plant to open north of San Diego in 2011.

The California State Lands Commission, which unanimously approved the plant at a meeting in Los Angeles, was the last hurdle before construction can begin.

The $300 million plant will turn seawater from a lagoon off Carlsbad into 50 million gallons of drinking water daily, enough to supply about 110,000 households and about 10 percent of the needs of San Diego County, home to 3 million people.

Desalination is common in the Middle East, but large-scale plants are rare in the United States and Western Hemisphere. There are about 22,000 desalination plants in 120 countries, which together produce about 3 billion gallons per day.

Carlsbad is the first of what is expected to be a wave of approvals for desalination plants in California, where about 20 plants are in various stages of planning.

Interesting to see the decision resolved on the issue of reliable supply rather than beancounter standards.

Catholic leaders block contraceptive advice for 30,000 Scots girls

A vaccine against cervical cancer will be given to schoolgirls without them receiving any safe sex advice as a result of a controversial deal struck between the Catholic Church and health officials. From next month, 12 and 13-year-old girls at all schools in the country will start receiving the jab in a bid to cut deaths from cervical cancer caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be passed on during sex.

The Catholic Church originally raised objections to the jab on the grounds it could encourage promiscuity, but has made a U-turn after reaching an agreement with health and education bosses. The deal means girls getting the HPV jab will not receive any accompanying advice on the need to use condoms to protect themselves from other sexually transmitted diseases.

Health campaigners and parents’ groups last night reacted angrily to the deal, warning that the sexual health of thousands of young Scottish women was being put at risk to avoid a moral backlash from the Catholic Church.

Many sexual health experts believe it is essential to give out safe sex advice alongside the jab to make it clear they will remain at risk from other STIs including HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. More than half of the 5,000 female chlamydia patients in Scotland last year were under the age of 20.

Scottish government officials have given the Catholic Church veto power over information to be distributed to students in all schools.

This is absurd! Why must education be tailored to fit the ideology of some religion or other?

Afghanistan says US bomb killed 78 civilians at a wake

Afghan woman in front of the ruins of her home in Azizabad
AP Photo by Fraidoon Pooyaa

Afghanistan’s president has criticised US forces for “unilateral operations” in the west which, the government says, killed at least 70 civilians.

A spokesman for the US task force, that operates outside Nato, said an inquiry was under way. The US had initially denied any civilians had died.

The US operations in the west of the country have led to renewed tensions between President Hamid Karzai and the international forces. Tribal elders said a bomb had been dropped on a large group of mourners at a wake in Herat on Friday.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said initial findings were that 78 civilians had been killed in the US raid, including women and children, but this could not be fully verified and a delegation was investigating.

The deaths of innocent people not only affects families and tribes of those killed, but impacts on the whole counter-insurgency mission, which is to try to win people’s support, not drive them against the government and the international presence in Afghanistan.

Not a surprising bit of analysis – especially coming from the Afghans. They are, after all, the folks who are being killed by uninvited guests.

Hamid Karzai doesn’t mind extending the relationship with the armies which helped him into power; but, I think it’s clear by now he’d prefer something more in the order of diplomatic assistance rather than technocrats who think their “smart” munitions cure every ailment.

Blue sky in Beijing

As the 2008 Olympics passed their halfway point, Beijing residents looking upward began to notice something new. The sky has changed from a dull beige to a bright blue. At night, countless luminous points flicker through the darkness above.

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reports that the city’s air pollution index – which measures atmospheric pollutants and their health effects – showed a reading of 43, up from 23 the previous day but still within the “excellent” range of 1 to 50.

By comparison, a US east coast city would have an index level of about 10 to 20, according to The Wall Street Journal…

According to Xinhua, Beijing’s government has spent more than $20 billion since 1998 on projects to improve the city’s air quality. In recent months, the city has frozen construction projects, shut down quarries, and reduced steel production. Beginning July 20, the city began banning cars in the city on alternate days…

Although some are dubious about Beijing’s measurement standards, there’s little doubt that China’s efforts have noticeably cleared the air. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker – a journalists’ blog that tracks science stories – notes the paucity of coverage of Beijing’s sudden improvement, and hopes that the city’s reprieve from smog will be more than temporary:

Gee, you don’t think xenophobia or the “easy” populist headlines left over from the Cold War might have something to do with that?

When movie operations go wrong

This weekend sees the return of FrightFest to London – a weekend of horror for people who aren’t taking their chances with the bank holiday weather. One film premiering is Freakdog, in which a coma victim is administered an untested cocktail of drugs by a trainee. It works – he wakes up, but there’s one unfortunate side effect: he’s been turned into a supernatural canine murderer hellbent on revenge.

In tribute, here’s a gallery of other operations gone wrong at the movies:

Click photo for gallery

Pilots warned airline of safety problems before Madrid crash

The Spanish pilots’ union sent a series of letters and emails to Spanair’s senior management warning of safety worries more than a year before Wednesday’s crash at Madrid airport claimed 153 lives.

In one letter the union, Sepla, wrote to Lars Nygaard, then Spanair director, and Marcus Hedblom, present managing director, warning: “The operative chaos is putting passengers at risk.”

The letter, dated April 2007, said: “It’s our obligation to inform you of the elevated unease which exists between ourselves for the daily running [of the company] for the past month.” It alluded to a lack of resources, a scarcity of ground crew and a number of planes which had been declared unfit to fly.

In another letter, pilots complained “unfortunately all this indicates this will end in chaos”, and in a further letter the union warned: “The norms about operating punctuality, desired by all, stop in many cases the realisation of norms of airline security.”

Spanair did not respond to attempts by the Guardian to verify the claims.

Corporate boneheads who ignore warnings like this from employees deserve to pay the damages from their own pockets.

We all know what happens to whistleblowers who dare to go outside the corporate chain-mail communications system. Telling the truth can be an occupational hazard.

Beijing’s Mighty Dragon 888 Harley Chopper

Kenny Kan started customizing bikes more than 30 years ago, when he inherited his brother’s old two-wheeler.

“It was jungle green, the ugliest thing you’d ever seen,” he said. “I chromed everything I could chrome and added a golden phoenix to the body. People in town thought I was crazy.”

The following year Kenny customized his first motorcycle, and a lifelong passion ensued. Now 61, Kan has harnessed his artistic talents and love of wheels to create the Mighty Dragon 888 — a 1400cc, 900-pound Harley Davidson chopper in fire-engine red.

“I built it for the Olympics,” he said proudly. “China has been poor [and] invaded for hundreds of years. Finally it came up to be a great nation again. And it has the ability to hold the Olympic Games.”

As someone of Chinese origin, Kan wanted to contribute something meaningful to the event.

Good for you, dude!

Folks who live their lives as consumers may not get it. Offering your nation a piece of your pride.

Researchers discover the smell of skin cancer

According to new research from the Monell Center, odors from skin can be used to identify basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. The findings…may open doors to development of new methods to detect basal cell carcinoma and other forms of skin cancer.

The researchers sampled air above basal cell tumors and found a different profile of chemical compounds compared to skin located at the same sites in healthy control subjects. “Our findings may someday allow doctors to screen for and diagnose skin cancers at very early stages,” said Michelle Gallagher, PhD.

Human skin produces numerous airborne chemical molecules known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, many of which are odorous. The researchers obtained VOC profiles from basal cell carcinoma sites in 11 patients and compared them to profiles from similar skin sites in 11 healthy controls.

Both profiles contained the same array of chemicals; the difference involved the amounts of specific chemicals – some were increased and others decreased in samples from basal cell carcinoma sites.

Implications of the research are wide-ranging. The studies may help advance development of new methods to analyze skin for signs of altered health status.

“Chemical biomarkers may eventually serve as objective clinical markers of disease if effective sensor technology can be developed,” said Monell analytical organic chemist George Preti, PhD.

Rock on, folks. Living in the Southwest, most folks around here are aware of the dangers of skin cancer. Doesn’t make it any easier to diagnose.

Obama picks Joe Biden as VP candidate

Sen. Barack Obama has picked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to be his running mate, multiple Democratic sources tell CNN.

The longtime Democratic senator was long considered a likely choice for vice president, but the buzz surrounding him intensified after he returned earlier this week from a two-day trip to the Republic of Georgia after Russian troops invaded.

Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, brings years of experience that could help counter GOP arguments that an Obama administration would be inexperienced on foreign policy.

After trying for the presidential spot enough times, certainly name recognition is there. Plus, Biden’s extensive foreign policy experience might make a difference.

Thanks, K B