Apr 30, 2009

Patients may have to foot e-health bill

PATIENTS may have to pay for their own electronic health records, with the key healthcare reform body urging the federal Government to mandate "person-controlled" systems commercially available from providers like Microsoft and Google.

"We believe that the rapid development of new IT applications required across the health sector to give people the opportunity to have an electronic health record is best undertaken by commercial IT developers in an open competitive market," the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC) said in a supplementary paper released today.

While tech-savvy patients are increasingly keen to manage their own medical records, public agencies worldwide have opted to maintain control over health information-sharing systems to ensure confidentiality, technical security and data quality.

But in an unexpected turnaround, the NHHRC said "every Australian should be able to choose where and how their personal e-health record will be stored, backed-up and retrieved", and that the record should be "at all times owned and controlled by that person".

'He was being eaten alive'

Queensland Health has rostered on extra staff to conduct pest control at a Darling Downs hospital after an 89-year-old nursing home resident had his ears gnawed by mice. LNP Member for Condamine Ray Hopper raised the alarm yesterday after staff at Dalby Hospital's nursing home, Karingal, found the man covered in blood on Anzac Day. The man, a war veteran, was in a distressed state and suffering injuries from severe mouse bites, Mr Hopper told brisbanetimes.com.au.

"I'm told by his daughter that the poor old fellow (had) been trying to brush the mice away as they continued chewing his ears, head and neck," Mr Hopper said. "He was so stressed that doctors put him on morphine to calm him down. He nearly died on Saturday night. He was being eaten alive." A Queensland Health spokeswoman told brisbanetimes.com.au this morning extra staff had been rostered on at the nursing home to deal with the infestation and mouse traps were being set.

Apr 29, 2009

US sets the pace in race for cyber weapons

AN INTERNATIONAL race has begun to develop cyber weapons and systems for attack and defence. The evolution has been compared to the invention of the atomic bomb, which changed warfare and deterrence 64 years ago.

Thousands of daily attacks on federal and private computer systems in the United States have prompted the Obama Administration to review US strategy. President Barack Obama is expected to propose in coming days an expansion of the $US17 billion ($A24.2 billion), five-year program that Congress approved last year, the appointment of a White House official to co-ordinate the effort, and an end to bureaucratic conflict over cyber turf.

The most exotic innovations under consideration would enable a Pentagon programmer to surreptitiously enter a computer server in Russia or China, for example, and destroy a "botnet" — a potentially destructive program that commandeers infected machines into a vast network that can be clandestinely controlled — before it could be unleashed in the United States.

In another permutation, US intelligence agencies could activate malicious code secretly embedded on computer chips when they are manufactured, enabling the United States to take command of an enemy's computers by remote control over the internet. However, that is exactly the kind of attack officials fear could be launched on US targets, such as through Chinese-made chips or computer servers.

Cyber war would not be as lethal as atomic war, of course, nor as visible. But Mike McConnell, the former director of national intelligence, warned last year that cyber attacks with "the ability to threaten the US money supply is the equivalent of today's nuclear weapon".

The scenarios developed last year for the incoming president by Mr McConnell and his co-ordinator for cyber security, Melissa Hathaway, described vulnerabilities including an attack on Wall Street and one intended to bring down the nation's electric power grid. Most were extrapolations of attacks already tried.

But the broader question — one the Administration so far declines to discuss — is whether the best defence against cyber attack is the development of a robust capability to wage cyber war.

The Pentagon and the intelligence agencies have concluded that it would not be enough to simply build higher firewalls and better virus detectors or to restrict access to the Federal Government's computers.

"The fortress model simply will not work for cyber," said one senior military officer who has been deeply engaged in the debate for years. "Someone will always get in."

Apr 28, 2009

Centrelink takes fight to computer hackers

Centrelink is fortifying its computer network against hacker attacks as new figures show nearly one million Australians face unemployment thanks to the global financial crisis.

In a report released today, Access Economics has predicted that the jobless rate would hit 8.5 per cent nationally in the second half of next year, which equals about 970,000 people being out of work - up from the 650,000 currently unemployed.

Western Australia's unemployment rate was expected to reach 7.1 per cent, however it was considered one of the best placed out of all the states to survive a national recession, with a 3.1 per cent growth predicted this financial year and a 1.4 per cent growth in 2009/10.

However negative growth is predicted for 2010/11.

Centrelink is bracing itself for the influx of residents needing financial help by improving the efficiency and security of its systems.

Centrelink administers more than $70 billion in payments and services to more than 6.5 million people each year.

However it and other government agencies, including the tax office, have had its systems internally hacked in the past

In 2008, Centrelink uncovered 114 instances of employees accessing private information without proper authorisation, at the request of family and friends or to commit fraud.

As a result, 17 employees resigned and 46 were fined, had their pay cut or received a warning.

This year the staff security system is due to be upgraded to a contactless identification smartcard system, which if successful will be rolled out at a cost of $10 million.

In partnership with the upgrade, Centrelink plans to include a protocol that its IT security staff designed to stop hackers "eavesdropping" on information being exchanged between any ID card and the system's mainframe.

"Until now, existing technology in this field has been at risk of breach by hackers," Human Services Minister Joe Ludwig said.

"But PLAID will prevent the cracking of authentication systems and foil the cloning of smartcards and other system-access devices.”"

The Protocol for Lightweight Authentication of ID (PLAID) system uses two cryptographic algorithms in its scrambling process to make it extremely difficult for hacking devices to read the information.

At most, only parts of the information being sent can be gleaned and hence renders it useless.

Comparatively other systems currently use just one algorithm.

Centrelink hopes to find a company willing to develop an off-the-shelf system that will utilise the protocol, since designing the hardware and software necessary was too expensive.

So far it has invested $560,000 developing PLAID over three-years and hopes to make the system part of a whole-of-government agency rollout.

Apr 25, 2009

Microbe-Powered 'Fart' Machine Stores Energy

It sounds like a gag gift instead of serious science, but a new electrical farting machine could improve fuel cell technology by turning C02 in the atmosphere into methane.

The technique won't combat global warming directly, since both CO2 and methane are potent greenhouse gases, but it could help store alternative energies such as wind and solar more efficiently.

It works like this: giving small jolts of electricity to single-celled microorganisms known as archea prompts them to remove C02 from the air and turn it into methane, released as tiny "farts." The methane, in turn, can be used to power fuel cells or to store the electrical energy chemically until its needed.

"We found that we can directly convert electrical current into methane using a very specific microorganism," said Bruce Logan, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, who details his discovery in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Apr 23, 2009

E-commerce laws to be upgraded

DOMESTIC e-commerce laws will be upgraded so Australia can adopt the United Nations Convention on the use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts - a new legal standard that underpins business activity conducted over the internet.
The Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) yesterday agreed to amend state and territory Electronic Transactions Acts, following "overwhelming support" for reforms aimed at addressing technological advances since the present uniform ETAs -- based on the 1996 Model Law on E-Commerce -- were adopted.

The rules address means of confirming the validity of electronic transactions, including the recognition of legal contracts, and rules for establishing the time and place of dispatch and receipt of electronic communications.

"Submissions from the business community and other interested groups all supported proposed amendments that will allow Australia to accede to the Convention on Electronic Contracting," SCAG said in a communique.

"A number also provided useful comments on specific policy issues.

"We have agreed to draft amendments to the uniform ETAs to directly reflect the outcome of the consultations."

When the proposal was announced last November, federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the Government wanted "to maximise the potential of technology to promote international legal and business engagement".

To date, 18 countries, including China, Singapore and the Republic of Korea have signed the convention.

The Law Council of Australia's e-commerce committee has urged the SCAG to also remedy variations in electronic transactions rules across Australia.

"Given the benefits to be achieved in international harmony in relation to electronic transactions, it would be ironic if the opportunity were not taken to also achieve better harmony on the domestic side at the same time," the council said.

"We believe the extent of variations is beyond what is appropriate in an internet context, where state boundaries ought to be irrelevant."

The attorneys-general also agreed that a SCAG working group would develop "voluntary guidelines" to assist employers and workers on workplace privacy issues, such as surveillance and email, and internet monitoring.

The guidelines are to be developed in consultation with federal and state Privacy Commissioners, as well as employer groups, unions and other interested parties.

Apr 17, 2009

Economic crisis tempts tech experts into cyber crime

The global financial crisis threatens to spark a rise in cyber crime as computer experts lose their jobs and resort to illegal ways to earn a living, a senior official of Microsoft said.

"Today these (cyber) attacks are not about vandalism any more, today it's about cash," said Roger Halbheer, Microsoft's chief security advisor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"Cyber crime has gone from cool to cash. And this will definitely grow in the future," he told AFP on the sidelines of an international conference on terrorism and cyber security.

It is "one of the things that scares me about the economic downturn because I'm expecting cyber crime will grow."

He said the crisis had meant people with good knowledge of the industry were being laid off. "They then have time and they don't have money," he said.

"At the moment we are still at the cool side. But I'm expecting it to move to the cash side."

He referred to the Conficker worm, believed to have burrowed into millions of computers around the world in the last few months, as a possible example of this "cool to cash" trend.

"What the goal of Conficker is is still unclear," he said.

But criminals often create these "so they have a network of computers they control and then they try to sell their services to scammers and phishers or whatever ... So it might well be that this is what the guy who wrote this (Conficker) is trying to do now."

A task force assembled by Microsoft has been working to stamp out Conficker, also referred to as DownAdUp, and the software colossus has placed a bounty of $US250,000 on the heads of those responsible for the threat.

The worm, a self-replicating program, takes advantage of networks or computers that have not kept up to date with security patches for Windows.

It can infect machines from the Internet or by hiding on USB memory sticks carrying data from one computer to another.

"It is a pretty bad beast.., one of the worst we've seen in a long time," said Halbheer. "It looks for a lot of different channels which makes it so dangerous."

He said algorithmns used in the worm were first published in December and renewed in January. But Conficker used the first version and then updated it in January.

Microsoft has modified its free Malicious Software Removal Tool to detect and remove Conficker. Security firms, including Trend Micro, Symantec and F-Secure, provide Conficker removal services at their websites.

Halbheer also called for more collaboration between the private and public sector to combat cyber crime.

Apr 14, 2009

Taliban murder women's champion

A LEADING female Afghan politician was shot dead after leaving a provincial council meeting in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, that her colleagues had begged her not to attend.

Sitara Achakzai was attacked by two gunmen on Sunday as she arrived at her home in a rickshaw, a vehicle colleagues said she chose to use to avoid attracting attention.

The Taliban claimed responsibility. The killers were apparently waiting for Mrs Achakzai, 52, a women's rights activist who had lived in Germany for many years when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan.

Officials said she returned in 2004 to her home in Kandahar, which is also the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban.

One of Mrs Achakzai's friends, speaking anonymously, said colleagues had begged her not to attend the meeting. The provincial council meets twice a week.

"She knew the danger she was in. Just a couple of days ago she was joking about the fact that she had a 300,000 rupee ($A8300) price on her head," she said. "Like other women she would always travel in a rickshaw rather than a big armoured Humvee because it's less conspicuous. But it also made her easier prey."

Woman sees her house being robbed on webcam

US authorities say a woman checking her video surveillance system from the internet while she was at work caught four people robbing her house.

Police say Jeanne Thomas logged on to the $US250 Wilife system and saw a person standing in her house. She quickly called 911. While talking to the operator, Thomas saw several other people. She pleaded with the dispatcher to send police, and 18 officers arrived and surrounded the house several minutes later.

Officers arrested Curtis Williams, Scott George, Jonathan Cruz, all 20, and 19-year-old Steven Morales. They were charged with burglary and attempted grand theft.

Thomas said she had known Cruz, a neighbor, since he was 8 years old.

A full video of the incident, taken from the webcam and published on YouTube, can be found here.

Apr 13, 2009

Facebook fixation harms student grades

Two hours later you're scrolling through baby photos of someone you sat next to in grade four. The essay remains untouched.

Most university students with Facebook accounts have similar tales of online procrastination. They know all too well how easy it is to lose hours of precious study time to the allure of social networking sites.

Now academic research has validated the nagging suspicions of many such students that Facebook is having a detrimental effect on their university results.

Researchers from the US have found that students prone to accumulating friends, uploading photographs, chatting and "poking" others on Facebook may devote as little as one hour a week to their academic work.

"Our study shows people who spend more time on Facebook spend less time studying," said Aryn Karpinski, a researcher in the education department at Ohio State University.

"Every generation has its distractions, but I think Facebook is a unique phenomenon."

Apr 8, 2009

Push for chips as ATM scammers strike again

SCAMMERS have struck again following another bank card skimming incident in Melbourne, and police fear an international crime ring could be behind the latest attacks.

Almost six years ago, leading bank card figures warned that a change in card technology — from magnetic strip to microchip — was urgently needed to prevent mass skimming crime from overseas as other countries introduced microchip bank technology.

Yesterday, police revealed a Bendigo Bank machine in Station Street, Sandringham, had been targeted and a skimming device and camera were attached to it on Saturday. On Sunday, a bank employee noticed the machine's card slot looked unusual and informed police. The weekend incident comes after ATM skimming devices were last month detected at an ANZ machine in the city and at a Commonwealth Bank machine at a Chelsea shopping centre.

Police are not sure as yet how much money was fleeced.

Detective Sergeant Rodney Mills, of the crime strategy group, said yesterday: "ATM and credit card scams are becoming a bigger problem. There's been incidents in Melbourne as well as in NSW in Sydney. It's a larger problem in Sydney at the moment, but we'll see what happens.

"It is an international problem. Cards that have been skimmed overseas are coming to here and cards that have been skimmed here are going overseas.

"There's a possibility of international syndicates. That's something that again all the police forces in Australia and the Australian Federal Police are looking at."

Australian Crime Commission chief John Lawler said a 2004 estimate that credit card skimming cost the Australian public $100 million a year was consistent with current figures.

He said the ACC had added 20,000 new suspect identity records in 2007-08 to a financial crimes intelligence network. The records included credit card skimming.

Mr Lawler said a taskforce, including the ACC, Australian Federal Police, the Immigration Department and Australian Customs and Border Security, was developing knowledge to combat identity fraud

Apr 6, 2009

Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.

The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule, and its many potential uses, are part of the buzz surrounding a field that, in just the past few years, has made the seemingly impossible suddenly probable: neuroscience, the study of the brain.

“If this molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” said Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, which demonstrated its effect on memory. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.”

Artists and writers have led the exploration of identity, consciousness and memory for centuries. Yet even as scientists sent men to the moon and spacecraft to Saturn and submarines to the ocean floor, the instrument responsible for such feats, the human mind, remained almost entirely dark, a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.

Now neuroscience, a field that barely existed a generation ago, is racing ahead, attracting billions of dollars in new financing and throngs of researchers. The National Institutes of Health last year spent $5.2 billion, nearly 20 percent of its total budget, on brain-related projects, according to the Society for Neuroscience.

Endowments like the Wellcome Trust and the Kavli Foundation have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars more, establishing institutes at universities around the world, including Columbia and Yale.

The influx of money, talent and technology means that scientists are at last finding real answers about the brain — and raising questions, both scientific and ethical, more quickly than anyone can answer them.

Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory, for instance — but what if, in the process, they lost other, personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that “cleared” the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?

And perhaps even more important, when scientists find a drug to strengthen memory, will everyone feel compelled to use it?

The stakes, and the wide-open opportunities possible in brain science, will only accelerate the pace of discovery.

“In this field we are merely at the foothills of an enormous mountain range,” said Dr. Eric R. Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia, “and unlike in other areas of science, it is still possible for an individual or small group to make important contributions, without any great expenditure or some enormous lab.”

Apr 5, 2009

26,000 construction workers face losing their jobs

UP to 26,000 construction workers face losing their jobs within six months, according to a peak industry body.

A survey shows 53.6 per cent of Victoria's commercial construction companies have less than 26 weeks' work on their books.

Based on Master Builders Association figures, more than 49,000 of Victoria's 194,000 building jobs are commercial.

Urban Taskforce, a national body representing developers, blamed banks and ill-equipped councils.

Chief executive Aaron Gadiel said: "Several of the major residential developers I have spoken to tell me within six months they won't have any active construction work on their books.

"The single biggest reason is lending. Most developers are unable to secure debt finance for new residential development. Even if a site is fully leased by a secure long-term tenant, banks are still saying that is not good enough and demand up to 90 per cent pre-sales before lending money. It is virtually impossible."

MBA executive director Brian Welsh said many developments were also being delayed, possibly terminally, by council red tape.

He said the industry body had "long been critics of the planning system" because it took too long to navigate.

"Under-resourced councils must call for assistance from State Government . . . not to do so would be negligent. They are jeopardising people's jobs," Mr Welsh said.

One Brunswick project has been seeking a planning permit for five years.

Banks agree to Swan mortgage-relief deal

HOMEBUYERS who lose their jobs will be eligible for a 12-month reprieve on mortgage repayments and could be granted concessions on car loans and other debt, as part of a new deal between the Federal Government and the major banks. As unemployment rates soar, Treasurer Wayne Swan has pressured the big four banks into helping families who fall victim to the global recession.

In a speech to an Australian employment forum today, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will announce the banks have agreed to post pone loan repayments for up to 12 months for the jobless. Accrued interest will be rolled back into the loan.

The move is designed to stave off rising mortgage default rates and forced home sales with potential for 800,000 people to be out of work by the middle of next year. Banks have also agreed to consider interest-only repayment options for other types of debt such as car loans. Fees for borrowers experiencing financial hardship could also be waived.

The unprecedented step follows the Government's October decision to guarantee bank deposits and wholesale funding for the banks to help stabilise the financial system. The wholesale guarantee, which cut lending costs for the banks by allowing them to raise foreign debt for domestic mortgages, is understood to have given the Government more bargaining power.

Apr 2, 2009

Wifely duties spark firestorm after therapist's book

The sex therapist Bettina Arndt's latest book The Sex Diaries has been selling like hottie-cakes, with 10,000 off the shelves in the first three weeks. But it's not just book sales that are up. There may be an Arndt-led recovery of bedroom hanky panky if wives heed her message that their poor deprived husbands deserve more sex.

Based on the bedroom revelations of 98 Australian couples over six to nine months, it has lifted the lid on the unspoken topic of men and women's biologically mismatched sexual desire.

From the Hindustan Times to the E Yugoslavia website, Arndt's exhortation to women to do their "wifely duty" and beef up the sex supply, has certainly been a headline grabber.

"It simply hasn't worked to have a couple's sex life hinge on the fragile, feeble female libido," says Arndt. "The right to say 'no' needs to give way to saying 'yes' more often."

Of course she has been excoriated by feminists for saying that much marital disharmony might be overcome if women just "put the canoe in the water" and start paddling, even if they don't feel like it.

"Bettina Arndt rape cheerleader" was one furious blog response. "F--- you, Bettina Arndt," was another. Eva Cox of the Women's Electoral Lobby launched a counterattack, claiming that it's men's own fault they aren't getting enough sex, because they don't do their fair share of housework.

"After an evening of organising kids, dinner, the shopping, the washing, the homework, etc, maybe [women] are too tired to want sex."

It's an old excuse. As Arndt says, any time men complain about something, even in the anonymity of a sex therapist's book, feminists hit back with the housework furphy. The fact is, when you add up in-home and out-of-home duties, men work just as many hours as women, and sex has very little to do with it.

The latest ABS social trends survey, released last week, found that women do almost twice as much housework as men - 33 hours and 45 minutes a week.

But while men might not do as much vacuuming and ironing, they spend a lot more time than women working outside the house in paid jobs - an average of 31 hours and 50 minutes a week, compared with women's 16 hours and 25 minutes.

Excalibur's fatal voyage: boat builder guilty

The owner of a company that built a boat which capsized killing four crew members has been found guilty of manslaughter. The racing yacht Excalibur sank in rough seas after its keel snapped off the Mid North Coast of NSW in September 2002. Alex Cittadini and a boilermaker Adrian Presland were both charged with four counts of manslaughter after it was discovered the vessel's keel had been cut horizontally and re-welded insufficiently.

Presland was yesterday acquitted of the charge but the jury asked for more time to deliberate. This morning in the District Court they handed down a majority verdict of 11 to 1 against Cittidini. Family members of the victims gasped as the verdict was handed down while Cittadini shook his head.

The crown case against Cittadini was that as company director, he either knew or should have known the keel had been cut or in the alternative, and that he had failed to implement reasonable safety proceedures which would have prevented the tragedy.

Apr 1, 2009

Heartless ants could spell doom for cane toads

While causing little harm to native toads and frogs, the ant, Iridomyrmex reburrus, attacks and devours young cane toads at the most vulnerable time of their life, claim ecologist Rick Shine and his Sydney University colleagues Georgia Ward-Fear, Gregory Brown and Matthew Greenlees.

"It's a pretty terrifying challenge for a young toad with limited ability to escape when suddenly a bunch of these voracious ants turn up," said Professor Shine.

Writing today in the British journal Functional Ecology, the team report that because the toad, Bufo marinus, originated in Central and South America it has physical and behavioural traits that make it vulnerable to attack from the ant.

They argue that by tapping into this "ecological trap", it should be possible to devise ways to bring ants and toadlettes together without putting native species at risk.

According to Professor Shine, the key flaw in the cane toad's otherwise successful invasion of Australia's tropical north is the fact that, unlike native species, it doesn't hide during the day in bushes or other sheltered locations.

"The big tragedy for baby toads is that they're active during daytime hours. Unfortunately for them, that puts them in contact with a ravenous Australian predator which hunts during the day," he said.

In a series of experiments with cane toads and seven native species - conducted at the university's Tropical Ecology Research Facility in the Northern Territory - the team teased out other Achilles' heels of the cane toad. Specifically, it lays its eggs in the dry season when water is low and there' little protective vegetation at the pond's edge.