Monthly Archives: December 2014

Sony Employees File 6 Lawsuits Claiming Studio Left Personal Information Vulnerable

Mallet, legal code and scales of justice

Sony has been hit with six class-action suits thus far in response to a massive data breach in late November, all filed by employees claiming that the movie studio was negligent in its protection of personal data.

“For decades, Defendant failed, and continues to fail, to take the reasonably necessary actions to provide a sufficient level of IT security to reasonably secure its employees’ PII [personally identifiable information],” the most recent complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, reads.


Privacy Concerns

Sony informed employees in mid-December that stolen data included employee names, addresses, Social Security numbers, passport numbers, driver license numbers, bank information, credit card information (related to corporate travel), user names, passwords, salary figures and “other employment related information” that was not detailed. Medical claims information for employees on Sony’s health plan may also have been compromised.

The first lawsuit was filed on Monday, Dec. 15, with more following in the same week. All have contended that the studio placed its financial interests ahead of standard security practices. “Sony failed to secure its computer system, servers and databases, despite weaknesses that it has known about for years, because Sony made a business decision to accept the risk of losses associated with being hacked,” the first lawsuit reads.

The second lawsuit cites “hack revelations like thousands of passwords stored in a file named ‘password,’ internal company reports about vulnerabilities and more,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

By asking the court for class-action status, these lawsuits may allow thousands of other Sony employees to join. It is expected that some of the lawsuits will be consolidated before proceeding.


Impact of The Interview

Privacy concerns are at the heart of all the lawsuits. But the second complaint also places blame on Sony for decisions made regarding The Interview, the film believed to be the motivation for the hack.

“Various news reports suggest the original script of The Interview included a fake villain, but that Sony specifically changed the script to make North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un the film’s villain,” the lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, Sony knew it was reasonably foreseeable that producing a script about North Korea’s leader Kim Jon Un would cause a backlash.”

The lawsuit will investigate whether this decision created an “unreasonable risk” for employees.

As of Dec. 29, Sony had retained the services of attorneys from WilmerHale, specialists in intellectual property and antitrust litigation, to defend it against the lawsuits.

When looked at as a whole, lawsuits against employers that go to trial in the United States are won by the employee approximately 67% of the time.

Right Under Their Nose: Los Angeles Scientists Work With Citizens to Document Urban Wildlife

Landscaped flower garden

Metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles are often referred to as concrete jungles. However, these urban jungles may be home to more wilderness and wildlife than previously thought.

Biologists are just now beginning to comprehend the amount of wildlife hidden in plain view in Los Angeles’s vast sprawl of urban and suburban areas. Residents of the City of Angels often catch brief glimpses of squirrels foraging in backyards, lizards sun bathing along worn hiking trails, and bees diligently pollinating bright flowers in home, office, and park landscaping.

However, urban jungle wildlife rarely gets the attention — or funding — it deserves, as exotic and remote locations often take center stage. Luckily, this notion is changing, and scientists spearheading the effort feel the success of the movement falls on the shoulders of “citizen scientists.”

A number of large-scale scientific research projects rely on average, everyday members of the community who have no formal or professional scientific experience to collect data about local wildlife species.

Some scientists feel these self-proclaimed citizen scientists hold the key to urban wildlife biology in their smartphones and mobile devices. It also helps to have an interest in biology, even if some forms of life are downright creepy.

“Los Angeles should be leading the world in urban biodiversity research,” said Greg Pauly, herpetology curator at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Pauly is also the leader of a regional scientific survey of amphibians and reptiles. “Not only is there amazing biodiversity in our backyards, but how pathetic is it that, as a species, Homo sapiens are still so incredibly ignorant of the world around us that we can walk into a backyard and (quickly discover) a new species?”

Since involving citizens in urban wildlife research projects, scientists were able to discover 30 new species of flies. A nine-year-old boy discovered the very first recorded Mediterranean house gecko in the county, and the first Indo-Pacific gecko was discovered by a fellow citizen scientist.

Two new species of bats were found in Los Angeles outside the Natural History Museum, where newly landscaped nature gardens cover nearly 3.5 acres with native flora and fauna designed specifically to attract local wildlife.

Italian HVAC Supplier Expands Into the U.S. in 2015, in $6.1 Million Investment

Opening up Floor Vent Heater
Thanks to the expansion of an Italian-based heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) company, Augusta County in Virginia will have 45 new jobs within the next year, nearly half of which will be available within the first quarter of 2015.Provides U.S. Inc. is making its first move across U.S. borders, and is a subsidiary of Provides Metalmeccanica Srl., a company that began in Italy in 1968 as a metallic office furniture manufacturer and eventually turned into a global leader in the heating and cooling industry.

Provides U.S. Inc. already manufactures evaporators and condensers for HVAC companies across the globe, but the move into 40,000-square-foot space in Verona, a town in Augusta County, VA, will be the company’s first expansion into the U.S.

The expansion is expected to cost around $6.1 million, according to local news sources, and Provides intends to work with neighboring company Daikin Applied in Verona, which is an HVAC supply company that already receives products from Provides. The new location in Virginia, Provides states, is expected to make it easier for the company to work with clients, like Daikin Applied, throughout North and South America.

According to Governor Terry McAuliffe and Augusta County Economic Development Director Amanda Glover, the expansion into Verona will create at least 45 new jobs in 2015.

Within the first quarter of 2015, at least 20 job positions are expected to be up and running, giving nearly two dozen Virginians stable careers in an industry that already employs thousands of Americans at over 80,000 individual HVAC companies.

The average annual salary of the 45 new jobs in Verona, Glover states, is expected to be around $45,000.

This expansion into Verona is certainly a positive move, for both the Italian company and the county of Augusta, and it has come a mere two years after Daikin Applied moved into the town and created a state-of-the-art air conditioning test station — creating 50 jobs in the process — to the tune of $9.2 million.

Manufacturing jobs, like the ones created by Daikin Applied and the ones that will be created by Provides, are the leading type of job in Augusta County. Overall, Glover states, both companies provide valuable assets to the local workforce, and have helped contribute to the county’s successful year; it’s expected that the region will end 2014 with nearly $70 million worth of investments, and almost 220 new jobs.

Wisconsin DOT Proposes Annual Fee on Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

Colorful Cars Stock

Wisconsin may join five other states that charge the owners of electric and hybrid cars fees to make up for lost revenue in gasoline taxes, if a budget proposal submitted by the Department of Transportation in November passes next year.

But advocates of green cars “feel these fees do more to target certain drivers than they do to raise money to replace increasingly shrinking gas-tax revenues,” Stephen Edelstein wrote for Green Car Reports on Dec. 2.

The fee would be $50, charged annually. This would ensure payment by both new and used car owners (the ratio of used to new car purchases in the U.S. is 3.3 to 1).

Revenue from the measure would total about $4 million per year, according to the StarTribune, and accounts for only a fraction of the $751 million in increased taxes and fees suggested by the DOT.

The proposal also includes an additional fee on sales of all new cars, high-efficiency or not. This would come out to be $800 on a $32,00 vehicle.


Infrastructure Needs

The department cites deteriorating infrastructure as a justification for the proposed fee, pointing out that drivers of highly efficient cars inflict just as much wear and tear on the road as drivers of gasoline-powered vehicles.

DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb said that his department just want to sees electric and hybrid car drivers pay their “fair share.”

Supporters of the proposal have praised it for its potential to reduce reliance on bond debt while meeting the needs of all drivers. “This proposal recognizes the fact that Wisconsin’s existing transportation financing sources will not meet the long-term needs of our transportation network,” said Transportation Investment Coalition Executive Director John Gard. The coalition is made up of road builders, labor unions and “others that support spending more on transportation,” according to the StarTribune.


Spending Problems

But opponents say that the measure amounts to punishing drivers for making environmentally responsible choices instead of holding the DOT responsible for budgetary problems.

“It seems like a very divertive tactic trying to blame these few hybrid and electric vehicle owners for the DOT’s transportation problem, when really the problem is their spending,” Shahla Werner, director of Sierra Club Wisconsin, told the Badger Herald Dec. 1.

The proposal may also be a tough sell in the newly elected and conservative Wisconsin Legislature.

“For Republicans who ran on cutting taxes, and who are on the record opposing any gas tax increase, the DOT request will be a major speed bump to fast passage of the budget,” noted AP reporter Scott Bauer.

Beyond the Office Door Expands Online Business with Weston Showroom

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An unusual furniture company based in Weston, WI is expanding its e-commerce business with a local showroom on Camp Phillips Road. The 7,000-square-foot space and 2,000-square-foot showroom will allow customers to peruse a variety of health-conscious and ergonomic desk options in person before they decide to make a purchase.

Beyond the Office Door made a name for itself primarily by selling office furniture like standing desks and ergonomic chairs. For the first nine years of the company’s existence, almost all business was done on the internet or over the phone.

This meant that though the company was successful online, they had a very minimal local presence, and very few local customers. Beyond the Office Door co-owner and Presidet Greg Knighton hopes that the new showroom will allow him and co-owner Ryan Bald to benefit from local business as well.

According to Knighton, there are very few local businesses that sell the ergonomic and specialized seating products that have made Beyond the Office Door so successful. He also hopes that seeing products in person will help people understand them.

“I can’t wait for the opportunity to get someone in here to actually see how awesome the desk is that I’ve been telling them it is for the last nine years,” Knighton told the Wausau Daily Herald. “Because it’s been tough; it’s an uphill battle every day trying to get people to understand what it is we sell.”

The move should also help open up a few new local job opportunities. Knighton hopes to expand the existing staff of five, and also plans to add two or three customer service positions to support the showroom. Out of the 4,906 furniture manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Beyond the Office Door chooses to support a local manufacturer called Colony Woodworking, which provides many of the company’s sit-to-stand desks.

Beyond the Office Door’s new showroom is set to open in March. Until then, customers can still order by phone or through the company’s website.

Alabama’s Largest Insurance Provider Extending Coverage to Same-Sex Couples

Health information by e-health system.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama is now offering legally married gay couples spousal coverage, in compliance with a federal rule requiring insurance companies to treat all married couples equally, regardless of their sexual orientations.

A spokesperson for the largest insurer in the Heart of Dixie said that the company started offering same-sex spousal coverage for underwritten plans in early 2014, “in response to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ regulations that prohibit health insurers from discriminating in health plan coverage on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Although Alabama has a ban on gay marriage and refuses to recognize same-sex marriages made in other states as valid, it still must obey the Department of Health and Human Services’s new guidelines, which were issued in March. Under these rules, same-sex couples — who were legally married in other states — are entitled to receive the same coverage that heterosexual couples are allowed to. They’re allowed to have their appointments with primary care physicians and medicines, which most commonly come in carded blister packaging, covered and reimbursed the same way heterosexual couples are.

The requirement specifically applies to underwritten insurance plans, including both those sold on the federal insurance exchange, and many of the plans sold directly. The federal rule did not affect plans that were grandfathered in under the Affordable Care Act and self-insured plans, in which large companies run their own health insurance program.

“Under this CMS rule, if a health insurer offers coverage for opposite-sex spouses, then the insurer must also offer coverage to same-sex spouses that are legally married in any state regardless of the state of residence,” said Koko Mackin, Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesperson.

The Obama administration urged insurers to comply voluntarily when the new law passed. Come January 1, 2015, it will become a requirement for coverage according to the HHS guidance.

T-Mobile Announces ‘Data Stash’ Plan for Unused Mobile Internet

T-mobile_logo

Remember how important rollover minutes were in the days before unlimited calling plans? T-Mobile announced Dec. 16 that it will launch a similar program for data.

“It’s your data,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a webcast. “What you don’t use, you don’t lose.”

“Data Stash,” as the initiative is called, will allow users to store unused data in a virtual piggy bank for up to a year. It launches in January, and will be offered free of charge to customers on Simple Choice plans of more than 3GB per month and tablet plants of more than 1GB per month.

And on top of allowing usage to roll over, the company is starting each user’s data bank out with a balance of 10 GB. Rollover data won’t be added to the balance until that free allotment is used up or expires (on Dec. 31, 2015).

The ‘Uncarrier’
This announcement marks another of T-Mobile’s efforts to brand itself as a mobile “uncarrier,” meaning the company supposedly bucks the stereotypical, exploitative policies of other mobile companies.

In his webcast interview, Legere said that the traditional data model — in which customers buy a set number of gigabytes to use in a single billing cycle — leaves consumers with no good options. They must either lowball their data needs and face exorbitant overage fees, or buy a larger allotment that they end up not fully using.

T-Mobile has already sought to distinguish itself from other national mobile companies by not charging data overage fees. However, it does severely restrict the speed of data transactions after users reach their monthly limits.

Is It New?
After the announcement, many sources rushed to combat Legere’s characterization of the move as being unprecedented. Regional carrier C Spire made a similar announcement regarding data rollover just last month, and Freedom Pop has implemented such measures as well. Verizon has experimented with data rollover, but only on its prepaid plans.

However, no major carrier has instituted data rollover on this scale.

It’s unclear whether the move is as novel as the company is claiming. But considering the rapid rise of mobile Internet usage — with about 50% of smartphone owners even reporting that their mobile device is their primary point of Internet access — it’s likely consumers won’t complain regardless.

Texas State Senate Chamber Gets $500,000 Carpet Restoration

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The State Senate Chamber will look a little different this January when its members reconvene, after installation of new carpet to the tune of $500,000. According to the Houston Chronicle, officials from the State Preservation Board say that the carpet came all the way from Dewbury, England.

The hefty price and the distance that the carpet came from are both for the sake of historical preservation of the 126-year-old statehouse. The carpet was installed in the Upper Chamber of the statehouse, to replace the carpeting that had worn since the last restoration, which was in 1993.

According to news channel WOAI, the carpet replacement is just part of the restorations that the Texas Capitol is undergoing.

The first carpet in the Upper Chamber was likely installed in 1889, a year after the building opened. The carpet was replaced in 1901 and again in 1917. The design of the new carpet was modeled after the 1917 version — a five-frame woven Brussels carpet with a design of foliage and heavy borders.

The carpet was recreated through careful research. First, researchers studied pictures of the original carpeting and mapped the carpet.

“Since all photographic evidence was in black and white, yarn colors were determined by researching additional historical carpets from the same time period, and by researching various trade catalogs and reference publications, together with Capitol-related documents,” Chris Currens, spokesman for the Preservation Board, told the Houston Chronicle.

Though the carpeting does seem to be a little pricey — some argue especially so since it was paid for with tax-payer dollars — it’s expected to last as long as the previously installed carpet, which was over 20 years, with good care. Experts recommend that carpets get professionally cleaned at least once every year to year and a half — which might add to the tax-payers’ bill for the carpet, but will definitely increase its lifespan.

BuildDirect’s New Funding Will Help Improve the Home Improvement Industry

select color swatch to paint wall

Vancouver based technology company BuildDirect has big plans. It wants to create a simpler home improvement industry with its Home Marketplace, a community-based tech platform that creates a one-stop solution connecting homeowners and subcontractors with product manufacturers, designers, trades and shippers. Even more impressive is the fact that it may actually achieve that goal, now that it’s received $50 million in financing from such investors as Mohr Davidow Ventures, OMERS Ventures and BMO Asset Management.

“This commitment from investors is a strong signal for the support and belief in BuildDirect’s unique approach to technology, data analytics, logistics and our ability to rebuild a broken home improvement industry,” says BuildDirect’s CEO and co-founder Jeff Booth.

BuildDirect plans to use the massive amount of funding to expand its Home Marketplace, which, as Booth explains, will allow BuildDirect to accelerate the change it’s bringing to the home improvement industry. The company plans to continue scaling up at a breakneck pace in order to meet the increasing demand of sellers seeking a wider access to homeowners.

In addition to the Home Marketplace, BuildDirect also provides its vendors with forecasting and analytic software and service, so that sellers can meet demands as they rise.

“Home improvement is a half-trillion dollar industry and is severely fragmented and inefficient,” said a statement from Katherine Barr, a General Partner of Mohr Davidow Ventures. “This financing underscores the speed at which old-world industries are breaking down and platform companies that leverage cutting-edge technology and data analytics, like BuildDirect, are putting the power in the hands of both the supply and demand side.”

She has a point. The U.S. home improvement industry is worth about $57.2 billion, so it should come as no surprise that such an innovative company could net so much funding. An expanded Home Marketplace essentially means buyers will be able to get large, heavyweight items to their project sites as easily as they could get a pizza delivered there.

If successful, BuildDirect’s plans will improve the home improvement industry.

New Search Feature Released by Facebook on Apple Mobile Devices, Android Feature Update To Follow

facebook-mobile-search

It’s been two years since Facebook launched its Graph Search as a powerful search feature accessible only on desktop versions of the website, but it seems that Facebook execs have finally realized just how much the company could suffer if it continues to develop its desktop features while leaving its mobile-friendly features behind.

The Graph Search, which allows Facebook users to search for individual posts from other people in the past, has become one of the more popular features on the website; as Matt Southern writes for Search Engine Journal, a column that gives advice to people trying to increase search engine rankings, the feature allows users “to reminisce on conversations between friends from back when [they] first joined Facebook, or find that great article shared by a page last week.”

Functioning much like a regular search engine, the Graph Search allows users to type in keywords or phrases and find a variety of content related to it. Unlike Facebook’s previous search feature, which Business News Daily reporter Sara Angeles calls a “semantic search,” the Graph Search feature doesn’t require users to type in the exact phrase, name, or article title that they’re looking for. The feature works extremely well for both local and national searches, and users can instantly access everything related to the keyword, from photos posted by their friends to their own status updates.

In a world where social media platforms are dominated by instant sharing and, in many cases, instant deleting, Facebook’s ability to preserve meaningful content might just allow it to compete with social media superstars like Snapchat and Twitter.

But the problem, as many people have known for a while and which Facebook researchers have clearly noticed, is that Facebook’s intrinsic archival nature won’t be a valuable asset if it isn’t available on mobile platforms. Well over half of all local searches occurring on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and the number of searches conducted on non-PC devices have more than quadrupled since 2012. If anything, it’s arguable that Facebook’s Graph Search update is pretty late to the party, and it wouldn’t be surprising if its two-year move into the mobile world has lost Facebook some user loyalty.

Nevertheless, “better late than never” is probably the best way to see this mobile update, and it will likely take some time before analysts can evaluate how well the feature is being received by mobile users. Facebook released the mobile-friendly Graph Search update for Apple devices on December 8, 2014, and it plans on releasing an Android update in the near future as well.