Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Daily Report

• The Washington Post reports that the Department of Homeland Security eased rules requiring tens of thousands of U.S. chemical plants to protect their stockpiles from terrorists by reducing the number of targeted chemicals to about 300 and raising the reporting threshold of many chemicals of highest security concern. (See items 4)

• The Associated Press reports that Cargill Inc. recalled more than 1 million pounds of ground beef after a U.S. Department of Agriculture test found that it may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The ground beef was produced between October 8 and October 11 and distributed to retailers across the country, including Giant, Shop Rite, Stop & Shop, Wegmans and Weis. (See item 16)

Information Technology

24. November 5, Techworld.com – (National) Some Apple users at risk of data loss. A U.K.-based data-recovery organization has warned Apple Macbook users that they risk potential data loss due to a design flaw on certain hard drives. Retrodata has come across “many dozens” of failures affecting Seagate Technology LLC 2.5-in. Serial Advanced Technology Attachment drives, commonly found in laptops such as the MacBook or MacBook Pro. Apple Inc. desktops that use laptop-oriented components, such as the Mac Mini, are also at risk. “The read/write heads are detaching from the arm and plowing deep gouges into the magnetic platter,” explained Retrodata’s managing director. “The damage is mostly on the inner tracks, but some scratches are on the outer track -- Track 0 -- and once that happens, the drive is normally beyond repair.” The problem is found on the Seagate 2.5-in. SATA drives that are made in China and are loaded with firmware Version 7.01. Model numbers affected include ST96812AS and ST98823AS. Clark advised users to go to their System Profile, and under Serial ATA look for the revision number. “If it is firmware Version 7.01, then you have to panic,” he warned.

Communications Sector

25. November 5, Computerworld – (California; National) In emergencies, can cell phone network overload be prevented? Within minutes of Tuesday’s 5.6 magnitude earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay Area, the number of cell phone calls on the Verizon Wireless network skyrocketed. Twenty minutes after the 8:04 p.m. quake, instead of the normal 300,000 calls made between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. in one area of Santa Clara County, the call volume soared to 2.3 million. Many of those calls were probably made by people trying to check on friends or relatives who lived in the vicinity of the temblor. And many of those calls never got through because, as often happens after a major emergency, the huge number of cell phone calls overwhelmed systems that were not built to handle such high demand. Instead of reaching their destinations, the calls received fast busy signals or messages saying that all circuits were busy. The incident raises the question: Is this acceptable service? Or can the system be fixed so that every call can go through at anytime, no matter how many calls are being made? It could be done, according to wireless carriers, but it would be expensive, and would lead to an overbuilt network that is needed only a few times each year. “You could build, at least theoretically, a network that has enough capacity for everyone in the United States to get on the phone at one time,” said a Verizon spokesman, “but [the required switching facilities] would be the size of the Empire State Building.” Instead, wireless carriers build specific cell site buildings that can handle the capacity that’s needed in each individual area, and that capacity can be increased as needed, he said. One telecom analyst noted that “the wireless system is not advertised as the system of last resort. Nobody ever made the claim that this system will work always.” Emergency first responders have cell phones that use codes to automatically route their calls to the highest priority to ensure they get through, he said. “Those safeguards are in place,” he said. As an alternative, callers should try sending short text messages, which use less capacity on the networks because they pass through in bits and bytes instead of requiring a dedicated circuit as a true phone call does.

26. November 5, Telegraph Herald – (Iowa) Sheriffs call for cell towers. Trying to make a phone call in an area without cell phone service can be frustrating enough, but when the call is to report a car crash, fire or some other emergency, the results could be deadly. That is why the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association is speaking out about its opposition to the Federal Communications Commission putting a cap on a fund that helps provide cell towers in rural locations. The Universal Service Fund was created by Congress in 1996 as part of an overhaul of the nation’s communications laws designed to create competition and make service available to all consumers, including those in low-income and rural areas. The FCC indicated recently that it is considering putting a cap on the fund, which could lead to cell service “dead spots.” Dubuque County’s sheriff said sometimes rural cell phone service can be a matter of life and death, especially because many people are now relying on their cell phones as their only telephone service and means of calling 911. The number of cell phone towers is also crucial for being able to identify a caller’s location. At least three towers are needed to triangulate the position of a caller in distress, a prospect that can be especially difficult in rural and hilly areas.

27. November 3, RCR Wireless News – (California) Fires burn up wireless lines. As wildfires raged throughout southern California in recent weeks and hundreds of thousands were evacuated from their homes, wireless networks in the area saw dramatic increases in usage, as well as some damage from the blazes. All of the national carriers saw vastly increased call volume, and each lost at least a few cell phone towers temporarily, mostly due either to burned fiber backhaul connections or loss of power. A Verizon Wireless spokesman credited clearing of brush around cell sites as one factor that helped the carrier lose none of its physical towers. AT&T Inc. sustained substantial damage to its wireline network and as of last week had 1,000 technicians working to restore service, according to a spokesman. The increased usage included first responders who reported using the commercial networks as a back up for their own private wireless networks, though some noted requesting help from carriers was complicated. Public safety officials said that their own wireless communications worked well, due in part to investments in increased capacity and coverage since the last round of serious fires several years ago. At one point during the fires, more than 500,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Authorities relied heavily on notification through a recently implemented reverse 911 calling system -- however, the system only included wireline numbers, so customers who only used cellular phones or Voice over Internet Protocol services could not be reached. Last week, San Diego began offering citizens the chance to register their VoIP and wireless numbers for the reverse 911 service through the Web, so they can be reached with alerts in any future emergencies. The communications system manager for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego/Imperial County regional communication system, said the agency’s 800 MHz private mobile radio system performed well, and that first responders also relied on local wireless providers for back-up communication and administrative activity.