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   WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Security Agency, working with the British government, has secretly been unraveling encryption technology that billions of Internet users rely upon to keep their electronic messages and confidential data safe from prying eyes, according to published reports Thursday based on internal U.S. government documents.

   The NSA has bypassed or altogether cracked much of the digital encryption used by businesses and everyday Web users, according to reports in The New York Times, Britain's Guardian newspaper and the nonprofit news website ProPublica. The reports describe how the NSA invested billions of dollars since 2000 to make nearly everyone's secrets available for government consumption.

   In doing so, the NSA built powerful supercomputers to break encryption codes and partnered with unnamed technology companies to insert "back doors" into their software, the reports said. Such a practice would give the government access to users' digital information before it was encrypted and sent over the Internet.

   "For the past decade, NSA has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies," according to a 2010 briefing document about the NSA's accomplishments meant for its UK counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. Security experts told the news organizations such a code-breaking practice would ultimately undermine Internet security and leave everyday Web users vulnerable to hackers.

   The revelations stem from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia this summer. His leaks, first published by the Guardian, revealed a massive effort by the U.S. government to collect and analyze all sorts of digital data that Americans send at home and around the world.

   Those revelations prompted a renewed debate in the United States about the proper balance between civil liberties and keeping the country safe from terrorists. President Barack Obama said he welcomed the debate and called it "healthy for our democracy" but meanwhile criticized the leaks; the Justice Department charged Snowden under the federal Espionage Act.

   Thursday's reports described how some of the NSA's "most intensive efforts" focused on Secure Sockets Layer, a type of encryption widely used on the Web by online retailers and corporate networks to secure their Internet traffic. One document said GCHQ had been trying for years to exploit traffic from popular companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook.

   GCHQ, they said, developed "new access opportunities" into Google's computers by 2012 but said the newly released documents didn't elaborate on how extensive the project was or what kind of data it could access.

   Even though the latest document disclosures suggest the NSA is able to compromise many encryption programs, Snowden himself touted using encryption software when he first surfaced with his media revelations in June.

   During a Web chat organized by the Guardian on June 17, Snowden told one questioner that "encryption works." Snowden said that "properly implemented strong crypto systems" were reliable, but he then alluded to the NSA's capability to crack tough encryption systems. "Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it," Snowden said.

   It was unclear if Snowden drew a distinction between everyday encryption used on the Internet — the kind described in Thursday's reports — versus more-secure encryption algorithms used to store data on hard drives and often requires more processing power to break or decode. Snowden used an encrypted email account from a now-closed private email company, Lavabit, when he sent out invitations to a mid-July meeting at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport.

   The operator of Lavabit LLC, Ladar Levison, suspended operations of the encrypted mail service in August, citing a pending "fight in the 4th (U.S.) Circuit Court of Appeals." Levison did not explain the pressures that forced him to shut the firm down but added that "a favorable decision would allow me to resurrect Lavabit as an American company."

   The government asked the news organizations not to publish their stories, saying foreign enemies would switch to new forms of communication and make it harder for the NSA to break. The organizations removed some specific details but still published the story, they said, because of the "value of a public debate regarding government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of Americans and others."

   Such tensions between government officials and journalists, while not new, have become more apparent since Snowden's leaks. Last month, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said that British government officials came by his newspaper's London offices to destroy hard drives containing leaked information. "You've had your debate," one UK official told him. "There's no need to write any more."

Published in National News

   MOSCOW (AP) - NSA leaker Edward Snowden has reportedly dropped his bid for asylum in Russia.

   Russian news agencies are quoting President Vladimir Putin's spokesman as saying that Snowden withdrew his request when he learned about the terms Moscow has set out.

   Putin said on Monday that Russia is ready to shelter Snowden as long as he stops leaking U.S. secrets.

   Meanwhile several of the other countries where the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks says Snowden gas applied for asylum have said he cannot apply from abroad.

   Officials in Germany, Norway, Austria, Poland, Finland and Switzerland say he must make his request on their soil.

 
Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) — Uncompromising and politically emboldened, President Barack Obama urged a deeply divided Congress Tuesday night to embrace his plans to use government money to create jobs and strengthen the nation's middle class. He declared Republican ideas for reducing the deficit "even worse" than the unpalatable deals Washington had to stomach during his first term.

In his first State of the Union address since winning re-election, Obama conceded economic revival is an "unfinished task," but he claimed clear progress and said he prepared to build on it as he embarks on four more years in office.

"We have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is strong," Obama said in an hour-long address to a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions.

With unemployment persistently high and consumer confidence falling, the economy remains a vulnerability for Obama and could disrupt his plans for pursuing a broader agenda, including immigration overhaul, stricter gun laws and climate change legislation.

Still, fresh off a convincing re-election win, Obama made clear in his remarks that he was determined to press his political advantage against a divided, defensive and worried Republican Party. Numerous times he urged Congress to act quickly on his priorities — but vowed to act on some issues on his own if they do not.

Obama also announced new steps to reduce the U.S. military footprint abroad, with 34,000 American troops withdrawing from Afghanistan within a year. And he had a sharp rebuke for North Korea, which launched a nuclear test just hours before his remarks, saying, "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further."

In specific proposals for shoring up the economy in his second term, an assertive Obama called for increased federal spending to fix the nation's roads and bridges, the first increase in the minimum wage in six years and expansion of early education to every American 4-year-old. Seeking to appeal for support from Republicans, he promised that none of his proposals would increase the deficit "by a single dime" although he didn't explain how he would pay for his programs or how much they would cost.

In the Republican response to Obama's address, rising GOP star Marco Rubio of Florida came right back at the president, saying his solution "to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more."

Sen. Rubio said presidents of both parties have recognized that the free enterprise system brings middle-class prosperity.

"But President Obama?" Rubio said. "He believes it's the cause of our problems."

Still, throughout the House chamber there were symbolic displays of bipartisanship. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrived early and sat with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., just returned in January nearly a year after suffering a debilitating stroke. As a captain in the National Guard, Duckworth lost both her legs while serving in Iraq in 2004.

A few aisles away, the top two tax writers in Congress, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sat together.

But as a sign that divisions still remain, three of the most conservative Supreme Court justices skipped Obama's speech. Six of the nine attended. Missing were Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.

Jobs and growth dominated Obama's address. Many elements of his economic blueprint were repacked proposals from his first term that failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.

Standing in Obama's way now is a Congress that remains nearly as divided as it was during the final years of his first term, when Washington lurched from one crisis to another.

The president implored lawmakers to break through partisan logjams, asserting that "the greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next."

"Americans don't expect government to solve every problem," he said. "They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can."

Yet Obama offered few signs of being willing to compromise himself, instead doubling down on his calls to create jobs by spending more government money and insisting that lawmakers pay down the deficit through a combination of targeted spending cuts and tax increases. But he offered few specifics on what he wanted to see cut, focusing instead on the need to protect programs that help the middle class, elderly and poor.

He did reiterate his willingness to tackle entitlement changes, particularly on Medicare, though he has ruled out increasing the eligibility age for the popular benefit program for seniors.

Republicans are ardently opposed to Obama's calls for legislating more tax revenue to reduce the deficit and offset broad the automatic spending cuts — known as the sequester — that are to take effect March 1. The president accused GOP lawmakers of shifting the cuts from defense to programs that would help the middle class and elderly, as well as those supporting education and job training.

"That idea is even worse," he said.

Obama broke little new ground on two agenda items he has pushed vigorously since winning re-election: overhauling the nation's fractured immigration laws and enacting tougher gun control measures in the wake of the horrific massacre of school children in Newtown, Conn. Yet he pressed for urgency on both, calling on Congress to send him an immigration bill "in the next few months" and insisting lawmakers hold votes on his gun proposals.

"Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress," he said. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice."

Numerous lawmakers wore green lapel ribbons in memory of those killed in the December shootings in Connecticut. Among those watching in the House gallery: the parents of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot and killed recently in a park just a mile from the president's home in Chicago, as well as other victims of gun violence.

On the economy, Obama called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2007, and administration officials said the increase would strengthen purchasing power. The president also wants Congress to approve automatic increases in the wage to keep pace with inflation.

Looking for common ground anywhere he could find it, Obama framed his proposal to boost the minimum wage by pointing out that even his GOP presidential rival liked the idea. He said, "Here's an idea that Gov. Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."

Obama also renewed his calls for infrastructure spending, investments he sought repeatedly during his first term with little support from Republicans. He pressed lawmakers to approve a $50 billion "fix it first" program that would address the most urgent infrastructure needs.

Education also figures in Obama's plans to boost American competitiveness in the global economy. Under his proposal, the federal government would help states provide pre-school for all 4-year-olds. Officials did not provide a cost for the pre-school programs but said the government would provide financial incentives to help states.

Among the other initiatives Obama is proposing:

— A $1 billion plan to create 15 "manufacturing institutes" that would bring together businesses, universities and the government. If Congress opposes the initiative, Obama plans to use his presidential powers to create three institutes on his own.
— Creation of an "energy security trust" that would use revenue from federal oil and gas leases to support development of clean energy technologies such as biofuels and natural gas
— Doubling of renewable energy in the U.S. from wind, solar and geothermal sources by 2020.
— Launching negotiations on a free trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union

Obama also called on Congress to tackle the threat of climate change, another issue that eluded him in his first term. The president pledged to work with lawmakers to seek bipartisan solutions but said if Capitol Hill doesn't act, he'll order his Cabinet to seek steps he can take using his presidential powers.

Taking a swipe at those who question the threat of global warming, Obama said, "We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it's too late."

Tackling voters' rights issues, Obama announced the creation of a commission that will seek to make it easier and faster for people to cast ballots on Election Day. He used as an example the story of 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a Florida woman who waited in line to vote for several hours during the November election. Victor attended Tuesday's speech as a guest of the first lady and was applauded heartily by the lawmakers.

Obama also called on Congress to pass legislation giving the government more power to combat the rapidly growing threat of cyberattacks. And, as a down payment on that, the president announced that he has signed an executive order to fight electronic espionage through the development of voluntary standards to protect networks and computer systems that run critical infrastructure.
Published in National News

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