Friday, February 28, 2014

Sears investigating possible security breach


Sears said Friday it has launched an investigation to determine whether it was the victim of a security breach, following Target's revelation at the end of last year that it had suffered an unprecedented cyber attack.
"There have been rumors and reports throughout the retail industry of security incidents at various retailers, and we are actively reviewing our systems to determine if we have been a victim of a breach," a Sears spokesperson told CNBC Friday.
"We have found no information based on our review of our systems to date indicating a breach."
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The company did not say when the operator of Sears department stores and Kmart discount stores had begun the investigation or provide other information about the probe.
Sears operates nearly 2,500 retail stores in the United States and Canada.
Bloomberg News reported on Friday that the U.S. Secret Service was investigating a possible secret breach at Sears, citing a person familiar with the investigation. The report did not identify that source by name.
The Bloomberg report said that its source did not disclose details about the scope or timing of the suspected breach.
A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service declined comment on the situation.
The Secret Service is leading the U.S. government's investigation into last year's attack on Target, which the company has said led to the theft of some 40 million payment card numbers as well as another 70 million pieces of personal data.

 Bitcoin is not real money


Just before the bankruptcy of the Mt. Gox bitcoin digital-money (or virtual currency) exchange, Japanese finance minister Taro Aso predicted the inevitable failure.
"No one recognizes them as a real currency," he told reporters. "I expected such a thing to collapse."
I totally agree. For weeks I have been tweeting and broadcasting that bitcoin is not real money. It is not a reliable medium of exchange, nor is it a reliable store of value. It has no central bank regulation, network operations or even centralized issuance. And because of its wild price fluctuations, bitcoin can never be a reliable payment system.
The virtual currency originally offered a way to make transactions across borders without third parties such as banks. But the collapse of Mt. Gox—with 850,000 bitcoins unaccounted for, totaling $425 million of losses, according to many reports—illustrates the grand failure of this digital experiment.
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Venture capitalist Ezra Galston writes in The Wall Street Journal, "Without a regulatory framework, credible payment processors—such as PayPal, Dwolla or Square—cannot service bitcoin exchanges. And because payment processors are vital for converting fiat currencies into virtual deposits, bitcoin operators will be forced to move downstream into the black market."
He concludes by asserting that "the bitcoin community must embrace external regulation to ensure that credible vendors may participate in payment processing."
Hundreds of bitcoin supporters have tweeted attacks at me for arguing that it is not real money. But historically, money must be a reliable medium of exchange and a reliable store of value. Bitcoin meets neither of these definitions.
How can you transact using so-called digital money when prices fluctuate by hundreds of dollars in the space of an hour, or less? You might think you bought something for $500. But by the time the retailer processes payment, the so-called digital-currency price drops to $100.
Both buyers and sellers lose big because bitcoin is not a reliable medium of exchange with a dependable store of value. It is backed by nothing but pure speculation. You can't even hedge it, because there's no interest rate. You can barely even get a price quote—not for the value of the product being bought or sold, but for the value of the monetary medium of exchange.
Years ago, Arthur Laffer warned that many currencies around the world lacked "the moneyness of money." He was referring to third-world-type currencies. But bitcoin would qualify, as well.
Now, I'm not going to defend the value of the dollar, which has depreciated substantially over time. But this unfortunate depreciation has happened over long periods—not in 10-minute intervals.
Of course, I'd love to see a gold- and commodity-backed dollar. And maybe future bitcoin reformers can restructure in such a way. But the dollar is accepted around the world by governments, banks, businesses and consumers because it is a reliable medium of exchange, even if its store of value has deteriorated.
The dollar serves as a payment mechanism, has a central issuer and is regulated. When the bitcoin people created their digital money as a way of avoiding banks and regulators, they forgot, or maybe never learned, the classic day-to-day requirements of a currency.
So fellas, please go back to the drawing board. I'm all for the digital revolution and trading assets online. But money is different. It must conform to certain long-held principles. That's why bitcoin is not real money now, and why without huge reforms it will never qualify as real money.

Court Orders House Arrest, and No Internet, for Fierce Critic of Putin

Protesters Say They’ll End Blockades in Bangkok


BANGKOK — In what appeared to be a major retreat by the movement to overthrow the Thai government, protesters on Friday said they were abandoning their campaign to shut down Bangkok and would dismantle their blockades of major intersections set up in January.
The leader of the main protest group, Suthep Thaugsuban, told a dwindling number of supporters on Friday night that he apologized for the inconveniences of the blockades and that demonstrators would adopt a new strategy to disrupt the government from a new base in central Bangkok. A statement by the broader protest movement said intersections would be unblocked by Monday “as a token of our appreciation.”
The protesters’ retreat came after an escalation of violence in recent weeks and a rare speech by the powerful head of Thailand’s army on Monday. In the speech he distanced himself from the protest movement’s goals and emphasized the importance of adhering to the country’s Constitution.
Yet analysts said the change in tactics by the movement did not mean the end of Thailand’s power struggle, which has left Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leading a weak caretaker government after protesters hampered elections in early February, preventing the formation of a new government.
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Suthep Thaugsuban, told a dwindling number of supporters Friday night that he apologized for the inconveniences of the blockades. CreditSakchai Lalit/Associated Press
Two smaller factions of protesters have vowed to continue their blockades of government offices. And the protest movement retains considerable support in the Thai bureaucracy, among the elite and middle class in Bangkok, and in southern Thailand. A series of contentious rulings in the courts have hampered the government, including a court order banning the dispersal of the protests. And a hasty and aggressive investigation by a government agency into a costly rice subsidy program could result in Ms. Yingluck being barred from politics.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a prominent historian, said Friday’s announcement was the biggest retreat since the protest movement began four months ago, and many people might feel relieved.
But he said the street protests were no longer the biggest impediment facing the government.
“If the protest ended today, the crisis would not be over,” he said in a posting on Facebook. Even if the election went forward and Parliament were able to convene, Ms. Yingluck’s party would be unable to govern until the opposition movement returned to the electoral process, he said.
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Antigovernment protesters in Bangkok on Friday. CreditAthit Perawongmetha/Reuters
The Democrat Party, the country’s oldest one and historically the voice of the Bangkok ruling class, allied itself with the protesters and boycotted the election. The party is seeking the appointment of a prime minister to replace Ms. Yingluck.
Sombat Boonngamanong, an activist in the Red Shirt movement, which supports the government, said the protesters were forced to retreat because, unlike in previous crises, the military leadership was noncommittal to them.
“Suthep was stuck in the street and waiting,” Mr. Sombat said. “But they never arrived. He felt disheartened.”
The military in 2006 overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s brother and the founder of what is the most successful political movement in recent Thai history. It has won every election since 2001, and its dominance is one of the major grievances of his detractors.
Mr. Thaksin now lives in self-exile after what he says was a politicized trial in 2008 in which he was convicted of illegally procuring land.
The protest movement, which in December and January drew tens of thousands of office workers and wealthy Bangkok residents into the streets, struggled to attract similar crowds in recent weeks. At its height, the so-called shutdown of Bangkok affected only a limited number of areas in the vast metropolis.

urrency Of China Continues To Decline


SHANGHAI — The value of China’s currency, the renminbi, continued to slide against the United States dollar on Friday, rattling investors by falling to its lowest level in nearly a year before closing higher.
The weakness in the renminbi, which has been dropping steadily in 2014, reverses a trend of gradual incremental appreciation against the dollar and other major currencies during the last eight years.
Analysts say China’s central bank is intervening heavily in the currency markets, intentionally engineering a slide in the value of the Chinese currency to punish speculators and prevent huge capital flows, or so-called hot money, from entering the country. The huge inflows of capital are showing up in China’s economic figures, with some analysts estimating hot money inflows last year at $150 billion.
The authorities worry that the large inflows could generate inflationary pressure and complicate the central government’s effort to revamp China’s economy, improve the banking system and eventually free up interest rates.
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Shopping for vegetables at a market in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. The renminbi has fallen 1.5 percent this year. CreditChina Daily, via Reuters
The latest drop in the renminbi caps off a volatile period for the currency. Since the beginning of January, it has lost around 1.5 percent of its value against the dollar. On Friday, the renminbi lost 0.3 percent of its value, hitting 6.145 to the dollar; the intraday drop of almost 1 percent was the biggest in years.
The sudden drop has surprised investors, who have become accustomed to a slow and steady rise in the currency. Last year, the renminbi was one of the world’s strongest-performing currencies, rising 3 percent against the dollar.
The recent currency weakness has weighed on the markets, which have been rattled lately by a slowdown in the vast real estate market and other economic concerns. This week, the CSI 300 index of big companies on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets dropped more than 3.5 percent. While the Chinese authorities maintain tight control over the flow of money into the country, global investors have found ways to funnel hot money into China, often through trade financing deals. Speculators do so hoping to capitalize on something not so easy to find outside China: an economy wedded to fast growth, high interest rates and a steadily appreciating currency.
“It’s hard to completely stop” hot money from flowing into China, Wang Tao, the chief China economist at UBS, said. “Offshore, the interest rates are low; Chinese interest rates are really high. And if the exchange rate is appreciating, investors view it as a win-win.”
By weakening the value of the renminbi, the authorities here apparently hope to make it harder for speculators to engage in a one-way bet on a rising renminbi, in what is essentially an arbitrage game between interest rates in the advanced economies outside and higher rates in the more tightly controlled Chinese system. For speculators, currency appreciation is seen as an added benefit.
But low interest rates in the United States and Europe mean there are few places to invest. At the same time, Chinese companies are desperate for cash because of rising interest rates at home and tighter bank liquidity.
Analysts say the government wants speculators to know that making such a bet on appreciation could backfire, if appreciation slows or even reverses course, and that is why the last few days have been so volatile.
In a statement this week, China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, a division under the central bank, suggested the market volatility had been normal. “The recent movement of the renminbi exchange rate is the result of market players adjusting their near-term renminbi trading strategies,” it said. “The degree of exchange rate volatility is normal by the standards of developed and emerging markets. There is no need to overinterpret it.”

Shepherd of the City’s Rebirth, Rio’s Mayor Feels the Strains, Too




RIO DE JANEIRO — IN his fits of rage, Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has thrown a stapler at one aide. He threw an ashtray at another. He berated a councilwoman in her chambers, calling her a tramp. Stunning diners at a crowded Japanese restaurant where he was being taunted by one constituent, a singer in a rock band, he punched the man in the face.
While Mr. Paes, 44, has apologized to the targets of his wrath after each episode, he adds that he is under a lot of stress. Normally clocking 15-hour days as he tears up and rebuilds parts of Rio in the most far-reaching overhaul of the city in decades, Mr. Paes is finding that consensus over his plans is elusive.
“Don’t ever in your life do a World Cup and the Olympic Games at the same time,” Mr. Paes recently said at a debate here on Rio’s transformation, making at a stab at gallows humor over the street protests that have seized the city over the past year. “This will make your life almost impossible.”
Mr. Paes has a point. Political leaders across the country may have thought that landing these mega-events would open the way for widespread celebrations of Brazil’s emergence as a developing-world powerhouse, with Rio dazzling in its resurgence. But as Mr. Paes acknowledges, things have not quite worked out that way.

Carnival Events Around the World

 
Carnival is celebrated not just in Brazil.
“I’m not cut out to be a masochist, to be someone shouted down and cursed at,” he said in an interview, referring to the way some of his more vocal critics approach him on Rio’s streets. “But this process reflects democratization, the development of citizens in Brazil,” he added. “I don’t think the protests are over.”
Instead of widespread jubilation, Brazil is confronting embarrassing delays in getting stadiums, airports and transit systems finished before the World Cup even starts in June. Protesters are questioningwhy funds are being lavished on sporting venues when public schools and hospitals remain underfunded. Evictions here of slum dwellers arefueling resentment over big development projects.
Meanwhile, the explosive Mr. Paes, whose political fortunes were rising before the street protests, finds himself at the center of increasingly fierce disputes over what kind of city Rio is turning into.
“I think this guy is a 171,” said Gilva Gomes da Silva, 40, the owner of a tire-repair shop in Favela do Metrô, a slum where his home was demolished. The term 171 is slang on Rio’s streets for someone deceptive, a reference to the penal code number for the crime of fraud. While Mr. Gomes da Silva said that his new public housing unit was acceptable, he complained that the project for which his home was destroyed, a large commercial area for car repairs, had not even materialized. “He’s fooling us,” the tire repairman said of the mayor.
For more than a decade, Brazil has been led by two leftists famous for their struggles. President Dilma Rousseff is a former urban guerrilla who was jailed and tortured during the military dictatorship. Her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who rose to the presidency after making his name as a union leader, was born into a family of sharecroppers and never made it past elementary school.
Mr. Paes stands in stark contrast to that. Born into privilege and raised in exclusive districts of Rio, he was educated as a lawyer at the city’s top private university before going into politics.
He cut his teeth in the early 1990s as an aide to César Maia, a former Rio mayor, joining a total of five political parties over the span of his career, finally landing in the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
After stints as a city councilman and a congressman, he defeated Fernando Gabeira, an iconic leader of Brazil’s Green Party, in the 2008 mayoral race. And even though Rio’s left rallied around Marcelo Freixo, a human rights activist, in opposition to Mr. Paes in 2012, the mayor glided to re-election with 65 percent of the votes.
But in the space of a few months, the landslide victory gave way to scenes in which Mr. Paes was hounded by protesters. Despite being faced with frequent criticism, Mr. Paes, an aficionado of the short, narrow cigars called cigarrilhas, shows few signs of growing a thicker skin.
Lashing out at the masked protesters called the Black Blocs, named for their black clothing and face-concealing scarves, he called them morons. He defended costly endeavors like the $100 million Museum of Tomorrow, an ambitious project designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, saying, “We need icons.” And he insisted on putting his aggressive overhaul of Rio into context.
“I don’t want to compare my city to Zurich, thank God we’re not that boring,” said Mr. Paes over breakfast served by uniformed servants at Rio’s imposing City Hall, a tower commonly called the Piranhão, or Big Harlot, since it stands in an area where the authorities razed a red-light district in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Rio is advancing fast,” he said, “but we’re at a different phase in our civilization.”
FEW people here dispute that Mr. Paes has put into motion a construction spree with few parallels in Rio’s history. Work crews are feverishly rebuilding areas around the port, a dilapidated district of decaying buildings that resembles old Havana, while tearing down eyesores like the elevated highway cutting through the old center.
At the same time, Mr. Paes is overseeing ventures like the Transcarioca, a roadway linking the international airport to Barra da Tijuca, a sprawling zone of residential towers, slums and gated communities, and an array of new installations for the Summer Olympics in 2016, when his second term is scheduled to end.
Mr. Paes’s real estate frenzy has drawn comparisons to the vision of Francisco Pereira Passos, the mayor who ripped apart swaths of Rio at the start of the 20th century to put in Beaux-Arts buildings and boulevards inspired by Paris.
But Mr. Paes insisted that the Pereira Passos era was different because it largely involved attempts to Europeanize coveted areas of Rio. “My projects aren’t in the most noble areas,” he said, contending that the exclusive beachfront districts are mostly absent from his plans.
The bonanza for developers and construction companies is accentuating tension on Rio’s streets, with the huge demonstrations over rising transportation fares and unsatisfactory public services in 2013 evolving into a steady drip of smaller but violent confrontations between protesters and the police.
Some of the animosity is related to efforts by officials to assert control over some of Rio’s favelas, or slums, with new protests erupting over killings of favela residents by the police. Armed gangs in some favelas have aggressively countered police forces in recent weeks, pointing to the erosion of gains made in lowering crime rates.
Mr. Paes argues that certain developments are beyond his control. Responsibility over the police rests with the governor of Rio de Janeiro State, Sérgio Cabral, who may be the only elected official in Rio to have attracted more ire from protesters than Mr. Paes.
Indeed, Mr. Paes seems more admired abroad than at home. At a summit meeting in South Africa in February, he succeeded Michael R. Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, as the leader of the C40, a network of cities seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
WHEN in Rio, Mr. Paes insists he is having the time of his life as mayor. He says that he appreciates the vibrancy of Brazil’s democracy and that he still enjoys drinking draft beer at Rio’s botecos, the street dives that are an elemental part of the city’s social fabric. He clearly revels in the perks of his job.
He said Gracie Mansion had nothing on his home, comparing the residence of New York’s mayor to Gávea Pequena, the luxurious palace, replete with tropical gardens and, at least during a stretch in 2013, protesters camped at the entrance, where Mr. Paes lives with his wife and two children.
Mr. Paes argued that the disillusionment with Rio’s political class was generalized and not necessarily directed just at him. Some of Rio’s residents, including those who have grown accustomed to hearing that the city’s time to shine has finally arrived, agree.
“I have nothing against him,” said Gilmar Mello, 47, who owns a small store selling motorcycle gear in Favela do Metrô. His business sits next to a pile of rubble after recent evictions and demolitions in the slum, not far from the refurbished Maracanã soccer stadium. “Everyone who gets into the mayor’s office will do the same thing.”

TSA Agent Questions Passenger Over Status Of D.C.'s Statehood

Plenty of things can trigger a slowdown in the security line at an airport. Whoever thought the status of Washington, D.C.'s statehood would be one of them?
This, after traveler (and D.C. resident) Ashley Brandt says she was delayed at the Phoenix airport last week after presenting a TSA agent with her D.C. license to confirm her identity. As the TSA requests a "state-issued photo ID," and Washington D.C. isn't a state but a federal district, Brandt says she was subject to extra inquiry.
In a recollection of the incident to the Washington Post, Brandt says the agent looked at her ID, shook her head, and said, “I don't know if we can accept these ... Do you have a U.S. passport?"
Brandt didn't present a passport, leading the agent to call for a superior. “I started thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get home. Am I going to get home?'" Brandt said.
Fortunately, reports NBC Washington, the supervisor signed off on her ID and Brandt made it home on time.
In the midst of the incident, Brandt's boyfriend, who was with her at the time,tweeted, "Holy. S**t. TSA @ PHX asked for gf's passport because her valid DC license deemed invalid b/c 'DC not a state'."
The tweet went viral, prompting D.C.'s House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton toauthor a letter to the TSA calling for "corrective action." But in all fairness to the TSA, as Mother Jones notes, the matter was cleared up pretty quickly.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, a TSA spokesperson confirmed licenses from Washington, D.C. shouldn't pose a problem at TSA checkpoints.
“A valid Washington, D.C., driver's license is an acceptable form of identification at all TSA checkpoints. When issues arise at the checkpoint, TSA officers work to make sure facts are gathered and quickly resolved to avoid future confusion.”
This story has been updated with comments from the TSA.

Obama: Any Violation Of Ukraine's Sovereignty Would Be 'Destabilizing'

President Barack Obama spoke on the situation in Ukraine on Friday, saying "we are now deeply concerned" about recent events.
Obama said any military movements taken by Russia inside of Ukraine would be "deeply destabilizing."
"The Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future," Obama said.
Obama said the United States will stand with the international community, warning Russia "there will be costs" for any military intervention in Ukraine.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is warning Russia there will be costs if Russia intervenes militarily in Ukraine.
Obama says the U.S. is deeply concerned by reports of military movements by Russia inside Ukraine.
He says any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be destabilizing. He says it would violate Russia's commitment to respect Ukraine's borders and would invite global condemnation.
Obama says the U.S. stands with the world community to affirm there will be costs for an intervention.
Obama spoke at the White House late Friday.

Over the last several days, the United States has been responding to events as they unfold in Ukraine. Throughout this crisis, we have been very clear about one fundamental principle: The Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future. Together with our European allies, we have urged an end to the violence and encouraged Ukrainians to pursue a course in which they stabilize their country, forge a broad-based government and move to elections this spring.
I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials, and we've made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of The people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.
However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.
It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violence of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
The events of the past several months remind us of how difficult democracy can be in a country with deep divisions. But the Ukrainian people have also reminded us that human beings have a universal right to determine their own future.
Right now, the situation remains very fluid. Vice President Biden just spoke with Prime Minister -- the Prime Minister of Ukraine to assure him that in this difficult moment the United States supports his government’s efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine. I also commend the Ukrainian government’s restraint and its commitment to uphold its international obligations.
We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies. We will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government. And we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop.

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