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NSA insists Snowden never talked about surveillance concerns

The NSA and Edward Snowden are once again at odds. Snowden maintained in a recent interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that he expressed concern to the National Security Agency about the agency’s vast surveillance program. The NSA disagrees, saying Snowden never said anything about those concerns.

The former contractor said that he e-mailed the NSA’s legal office in April 2013 and wrote about his concerns with the agency’s far-reaching data collection and phone surveillance. He said he openly questioned the agency’s legal training programs.

“I have raised the complaints not just officially in writing through email to these offices and these individuals but to my supervisors, to my colleagues, in more than one office,” said Snowden. “Many, many of these individuals were shocked by these programs,” added Snowden. He also said many advised him to keep quiet about his concerns, warning him, “If you say something about this, they’re going to destroy you.”

Snowden told journalists later in 2013 about the NSA’s bulk data collection and surveillance programs. His revelations set off a firestorm of controversy, with some calling him a brave whistleblower and others branding him a traitor.

Snowden released over 1 million classified documents and leaked many to the media outside the U.S. including the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. The documents exposed highly classified eavesdropping programs, including the telephone calls of many Americans.

The NSA vehemently denies Snowden’s allegations. The “e-mail did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed,” the NSA said in a statement.

“There are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations. We have searched for additional indications of outreach from him in those areas and to date have not discovered any engagements related to his claims,” the statement concluded.

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Three years after arrest, LulzSec hacker faces sentencing

Hector Xavier Monsegur, a former hacker with the group, LulzSec, will be sentenced this week in New York federal court. He will be sentenced three years after his arrest for hacking into government and business websites.

When Mosegur, or Sabu, as he was known online, was active with LulzSec, he hacked into numerous prominent websites, including senate.gov and an FBI website in Atlanta. The U.S. government said he caused over $2 million in damages. After Monsegur’s arrest, he became a very valuable informant. Prosecutors say that he has saved the government millions of dollars in preventing cyber attacks.

He helped the FBI crack down on other computer hacking groups like Anonymous, Internet Feds, and his own former group, LulzSec. Monsegur also helped to bring down Jeremy Hammond, who was considered the world’s top cybercriminal. Monsegur could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. He may get a reduced sentence for his cyber attacks if prosecutors succeed in lowering his sentence as they have recommended in court documents.

“The FBI used this information, wherever feasible, to prevent or mitigate harm that otherwise would have occurred,” said the prosecutors in their documents. “The FBI estimates that it was able to disrupt or prevent at least 300 separate computer hacks in this fashion. Although difficult to quantify, it is likely that Monsegur’s actions prevented at least millions of dollars in loss to these victims.”

Some of the most important hacks he prevented was a potential attack on the US electrical grid. Through his communication with hackers, Monsegur found it was a hoax, which saved the government time and money.

Prosecutors’s praise of Mosegur’s help as “extraordinarily valuable and productive”, but he has been an enemy of the hacking world since he became an informant. Monsegur has had to move after being harassed by hackers online and his children were threatened.

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InterContinental Hotels spurns $10.1 billion offer from unknown U.S. bidder

InterContinental Hotels (ICH), the world’s largest hotelier, has rejected a $10.1 billion offer from an unknown U.S. bidder. The company’s board reportedly met a few weeks ago and decided the offer was too low, Sky News reports.

ICH is known for some major brands, including Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. In total, the company runs 4,700 hotels, according to Reuters. That number alone accounts for about five percent of all the world’s hotel rooms.

Analysts say the company is attractive to U.S. suitors because it would allow them to move their tax domicile to Britain, potentially saving billions of dollars as a result, The Guardian reports. These so-called “tax inversion deals” are becoming increasingly popular as companies follow the approach that Pfizer took with AstraZeneca.

More offers for ICH are expected to come in the future. While the identity of the current bidder is unknown, one possible bidder is said to be Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the owner of the Le Meridian. Starwood Hotels & Resorts has a market value of just under $15 billion.

Under its current chairman, Patrick Cescau, Intercontinental has been shifting its model towards managing hotels, instead of outright owning them. The new strategy has pleased investors, as profits from the sale of unwanted hotels are often returned directly to shareholders.

The company already announced earlier this month that $750 million would be returned to shareholders. Last year, the company’s profits were up over ten percent from the year before, coming in around $820 million.

The InterContinental in Paris is allegedly next on the chopping block.

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Living large: Best companies for pay and benefits revealed

In a report released by Glassdoor, Google ranked above all other large American companies for employee pay and benefits. Twelve technology companies altogether came in among the top 25.

The perks at Google, in addition to a hefty $128,000 average base salary, are fairly impressive. One employee reported receiving a dish with porcini-encrusted grass-fed beef and parmesan-creamed onions.  The company also ranked very highly in the work/life balance category, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Other companies on the list were not to be outdone.

According to Forbes, Facebook, which came in third in the rankings, is known for supplying its employees with free bicycles to get around its enormous Menlo Park, CA campus. Costco, the only non-tech company in the top five, offers full insurance benefits even to its part-time workers.

The rankings are unique in that they are not dependent on the participation of any companies. Instead, Glassdoor asks employees that use their site to rank companies where they have worked. The review has space for 17 separate categories, each of which is ranked by the employee on a 1-5 star scale.  Companies were only included in the rankings if at least 25 employees submitted a review. As a result, many smaller companies were not included.

While the rankings hype up workplace benefits, Glassdoor staffers admit that salary is still the most important factor for the vast majority of job seekers.

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WTO rules in favor of U.S. on Chinese tariff violation: Is a trade war coming?

The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a statement on May 23 ruling in favor of the U.S. in a 2012 complaint filed against the Chinese government over improperly imposing tariffs on imported vehicles.

The WTO, a Geneva, Switzerland-based arbiter, reported that China added duties on a host of U.S.-based manufactured vehicles – including  ones from General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC – in 2011 after the U.S. government bailed out the automakers during the global financial crisis. They eliminated them in December. Ford Motor Co., which didn’t receive U.S. assistance in the bailout, didn’t export vehicles to China during the investigation period and wasn’t subject to the tariffs.

China imposed duties, as high as 21.5 percent, on U.S.-made cars and sport-utility vehicles in December 2011, claiming the goods benefited from government subsidies and were sold in China for market below value, known as being “dumped.”

“This is a significant victory,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said May 23 at a press conference in Washington. “It’s time for China to change the practices that have led the United States and our trading partners to bring these kinds of cases.”

According to a news report by Bloomberg, the Chinese Embassy in Washington in a statement claimed victory on some technical aspects of the case. “We noticed that the panel report rejected part of the United States’ argument that China failed to define the domestic industry,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman, stated in an e-mail. He said China had a “reservation” with other elements of the ruling.

In September 2012 the U.S. filed a separate WTO case against China alleging the Beijing government subsidized its own auto and auto-parts makers in violation of global trade rules. That case is still under review, according to the U.S. trade office.

Also, this week the U.S. dramatically escalated the trade battle with China, accusing five military leaders of stealing corporate secrets. The indictments follow complaints over issues such as tires, chicken parts, clean-energy products and credit-card payment services.

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Decision to release 'pillowcase rapist' slammed by California politician, officials

Much to the chagrin of local officials and residents, serial rapist Christopher Evans Hubbart, nicknamed the “pillowcase rapist,” will be released on July 7, 2014. On Friday, Santa Clara County Judge Gilbert Brown officially approved Hubbart’s release to a home in Palmdale, California.

Hubbart admitted to raping about 40 women between 1971 and 1982, but authorities believe there could be as many as 100 victims. After several stints in prison, Hubbart was transferred to a state mental hospital in 1996.

“The court has made a horrendous error in judgment in deciding to place this parolee into Lake Los Angeles,” said state assemblyman Steve Fox (D-Palmdale) in a statement. “This is an unfair decision that flies in the face of the traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. We are being dumped on.”

Fox wasn’t the only public official to express outrage over Hubbart’s release.

“I am extremely disappointed with the court’s decision,” said Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey at a news conference. “We will do everything within our authority to protect the residents of Los Angeles County from this dangerous predator.”

Hubbart will have to wear a GPS ankle bracelet and will be chaperoned in public for the first six months after his release.

Do you agree with Fox and Lacey or should sexual predators be allowed to re-enter society if deemed fit for release by doctors at a state mental hospital? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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HP to ax up to 16,000 more jobs

Hewlett Packard announced in an SEC filing this past Thursday that it will be cutting an additional 11, 000-16, 000 jobs, bringing its total since 2012 up to 50,000.

The company’s recent earnings report also fell below expectations, as revenues declined for the 11th consecutive quarter, Time reports. The drop was, however, the closest the company has been to growth since 2011.

The cuts are part of CEO Meg Whitman’s plan to increase revenues while slimming down on expenses. Whitman also plans on investing more in new businesses, as the market for personal computers and printers shrinks.

“It clearly gives them more cushion to work on the revenue growth,” Mizuho Securities analyst Abhey Lamba told Bloomberg News. “It’s going to be challenging to deliver that revenue growth.”

According to Bloomberg, HP stocks are up 39 percent since Whitman took over in 2011. However, the stock took a two percent hit on Thursday in reaction to the job cuts and earnings report.

 

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U.S. home sales rise, but experts remain cautious

New home sales were up 6.4 percent in April after a disappointing March.

The Commerce Department announced Friday that sales of newly built homes rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 433, 000, after experts estimated a rate of 420, 000. The March rate came in at only 402,000, after experts also predicted 420,000, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Initial reactions to the report were fairly positive.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” economist Stephanie Karol of IHS Global Insight said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I do expect things to get better.”

According to the LA Times, buyers have been more hesitant in recent months after a strong rebound in early 2013. The slow down was due in part to rising mortgage interest rates and the harshness of a long winter.

Sales of new homes represent only a portion of all home sales, but are considered a more timely measure of the market because they are counted at the time of sale as opposed to the time of closing.

Going forward, many experts remain cautious.

“The data have yet to show a meaningful pickup in activity early on in the spring following the unusually harsh winter,” said J.P. Morgan economist Daniel Silver, according to Reuters. “But at least the recent sales data now look more favorable than what had been evident in the March report.”

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Oregon overturns gay marriage ban

Oregon became the latest state to overturn its gay marriage ban after a federal judge overturned the state’s ban. U. S. District Judge Michel McShane’s overturning the law makes Oregon the seventh state this year to have the law declared invalid by a judge.

The Oregon constitutional ballot, Measure 36, was passed in 2004. Since then, same-sex marriage supporters gathered enough signature to put a measure on the ballot to overturn the ban. Since the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, judges have ruled that the measure is unconstitutional.

Even though the National Organization of Marriage wanted to halt the overturn of the ban, the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the attempt to halt McShane’s ruling. There are no immediate plans to appeal the decision.

Because Oregon’s marriage laws discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without a rational relationship to any legitimate government interest”,  wrote McShane in his decision, ” the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”  Marriage licenses are set to be issued to same-sex couples immediately.

The LGBT community has reacted with joy to the news. ” It’s a surreal exciting moment not just for Oregon, but for out nation, said Ben West, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to overturn the gay marriage ban. He added, ” I’m proud to be an Oregonian, Paul[ Rummel, his partner]’s future husband. ”

McShane is an openly gay judge. but insists his sexual orientation played no role in his ruling. He wrote that he based his decision on the belief that all couple and  families deserve equal protection under the law. ”I believe that if we can look for a moment past gender and sexuality, we can see in these plaintiffs nothing more or less than our own families,”  wrote McShane in his ruling. 

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BREAKING: AT&T, DirecTV deal possibly in the works

As consolidation accelerates across the entire communications industry, another proposed takeover agreement between AT&T and DirecTV (DTV) may become official on May 19, according to a May 17 Bloomberg news report. Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) recently agreed to a deal to merge their TV and Internet services.

Bloomberg reported that AT&T spokesperson Brad Burns declined to comment on the possible agreement, while another online news source BuzzFeed reported Saturday (May 17) that the companies were on track to announce the acquisition Sunday (May 18). The two sides had expected the deal to take longer; however, they made progress on key structures of the transaction in recent days, said two people who asked not to be identified because the information is private. These sources say the takeover would value DirecTV at about $50 billion.

DirecTV, which doesn’t have its own phone service or a competitive Internet offering, is under rising pressure to find a partner as more viewers go online for video and the pool of traditional pay-TV customers shrinks in the U.S. The purchase would give AT&T a national satellite-TV provider to combine with its U.S. wireless service and phone and high-speed Internet offerings.

DirecTV would give AT&T, the second-biggest U.S. mobile-phone carrier, a pay-TV business that’s expanding in Latin America and that’s getting U.S. customers to pay increasingly higher monthly bills. With its shares up 25 percent this year, DirecTV had a market value of about $43 billion at yesterday’s close and had about $18 billion in net debt as of March 31. AT&T is valued at about $191 billion and had net debt of about $76 billion at the end of March.

A deal with DirecTV shows that AT&T has turned its attention back to the U.S. market since the Time Warner Cable takeover was announced. AT&T had previously explored wireless opportunities in Europe, such as acquiring Vodafone Group Plc.