Three Newly Discovered Exoplanets Could Yield Life

Astronomers in Germany have announced the discovery of three planets in a star system some twenty-two light years from Earth. The exoplanets, which are all believed to be rocky super-earths, orbit their host star in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone – where the temperature is not too hot and not too cold — meaning they may be capable of sustaining organic life, astronomers say.

The planets were discovered in a solar system which bears similarities to our own, astronomers at the University of Gottingen revealed. Between five and seven planets orbit Gliese 677C star – part of a trinary system called Gliese 667.

“We identified three strong signals in the star before, but it was possible that smaller planets were hidden in the data. We re-examined the existing data, added some new observations, and applied two different data analysis methods especially designed to deal with multi-planet signal detection,” commented Guillem Anglada-Escude, who led the initiative.

“Both methods yielded the same answer: there are five very secure signals and up to seven low-mass planets in short-period orbits around the star,” he continued.

The Gliese 667C system is unique as it is the first solar system discovered with more than one planet orbiting within its star’s habitable zone. In our own solar system the Earth is the only planet within the Sun’s “Goldilocks” zone, with Venus and Mars orbiting marginally outside.

The host star in the Gliese 997C system is just one-third the mass of our Sun, making the discovery of three planets within its habitable zone all the more impressive.

The newly discovered planets lie in the constellation Scorpius – which, at twenty-two light years away, is right in Earth’s cosmic back garden, and much closer than the stars being scanned by Nasa’s advanced Keplar telescope.

The discovery came about after scientists peering through the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope took another look at the Gliese 667 system, where they had already discovered three planets outside the host star’s habitable zone.

The discovery of the three new planets may mean that more habitable planets occupy the Milky Way than first thought.

US Regulators Ready to Engage Virtual Currency Operators

A top US regulator has provided the strongest indication yet that Washington is ready to engage virtual currency operators for the first time.

The decision was prompted by the recent fall of high profile digital currency service Liberty Reserve, which operated as a black market bank according to prosecutors, since its incorporation in Costa Rica in 2006.

Bart Chilton, a commissioner at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, suggested that transactions facilitated by digital currency operators may fall under the remit of US tax collectors in an interview with the FT, mentioning transactions completed through the popular – and as of yet unregulated – digital currency Bitcoin.

The news is a positive development both digital currency users, who until now have had to conduct business in an environment with no discernible regulation, and for payment facilitators, who will be welcomed in from the cold by panicked Washington, where Liberty Reserve’s fall, viewed in some quarters as the largest black market operation of all time, has prompted calls for action.

Leading the charge for the integration of virtual currencies to the US tax system is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which is losing out on billions of dollars in tax: Liberty Reserve alone is estimated to have helped its customers hide up to $6 billion.

Bitcoin and virtual currencies like it, known in the investment community as fiat money – tender unrecognised by any government but widely accepted as currency – can sometimes – by intent or inadvertently – result in transactions where no tax is paid.

The IRS began looking at the impact virtual currencies could have on the body’s ability to properly ensure tax compliance in 2007. Though since then has it not kept up with these currencies’ rate of development and could have done more to prevent virtual currency operators from slipping through the cracks, or so says the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which recently published a report on the subject.

As well as providing a critique of the IRS’ handling of virtual currency operators, the office also suggested that integrating virtual currencies and doing business through virtual economies is possible, and can produce taxable income. It also included a caveat however, warning of the dangers posed by “closed flow” transactions: a closed flow is where a buyer purchases an online-based product or service – a film or television streaming subscription or social media game tokens for example – and no real world money or products or services change hands.

Although Bitcoin is viewed by many online spenders as a new and exciting online payment option, and is lauded by its pioneers as a currency of the future, it also has its detractors, and is vulnerable to the ebb and flow of global money markets – another reason regulators are keen to bring the phenomenon under their umbrella. Bitcoin’s valuation hit a sharp incline around March, when the global financial crisis, particularly developments in Europe, saw the value of a Bitcoin – priced at around $19 in January, jump to $190 in April. At present (June 10), one Bitcoin is valued at $121.

The episode attracted a wide range of attention from authorities, including the Federal Reserve, which at the beginning of June announced that it is investigating the risks virtual currencies and online payment facilitators – including Bitcoin and PayPal – could have on global financial markets.

“We have been taking with banking organisations over the last year or two, trying to more carefully understand what the concerns are with these new payment mechanisms,” Agence-France Presse quotes Federal Reserve vice chair Janet Yellen as saying.

Lawmakers are expected to reveal more about their plans to engage virtual currency operators in the weeks ahead.

Netanyahu Warns Against “Wishful Thinking” After Rouhani Election

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the suggestion that Iran will reengage constructively with the international community after the victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in the country’s presidential election as “wishful thinking”, and urged international powers not to ease trade restrictions and embargos imposed on the economically struggling Persian nation.

“The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme,” the Israeli prime minister warned on Sunday. “Iran will be judged on its actions. If it insists on continuing to develop its nuclear programme the answer needs to be clear – stopping its nuclear programme by any means.”

Netanyahu pointed out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s supreme leader – has final say on any decision to scrap the country’s nuclear programme, which Tehran has always insisted is used exclusively for electricity generation.

Netanyahu, who has been a long-standing critic of Iran’s decision to develop nuclear technologies, displayed none of the optimism that the country’s president, Shimon Perez, or justice minister Tzipi Livni, displayed when questioned about their reactions to Rouhani’s election.

Speaking to the press hours after Rouhani was named president, Perez said: “He said he will not go for these extreme policies; I’m sure he specified his policies. But it will be better, I am sure – that’s why the people voted for him.”

Livni echoed the president’s sentiments, describing Rouhani’s win as a victory for the majority of Iranians, who according to poll results, are eager for a more moderate voice to represent them.

Netanyahu’s comments come hours after Rouhani, a former nuclear inspector, insisted that he is ready to open a constructive dialogue with Western powers – a play many commentators speculate the president-elect opted for in order to differentiate him from his staunchly conservative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was well known for his anti-west views and unwillingness to engage with the international community. Rouhani is not thought to be as enamoured by the prospect of developing a working nuclear programme as the outgoing president.

Netanyahu’s firm words were matched by the Israel’s minister for intelligence Yuval Steinitz, who also expressed reservations about climbing down on sanctions while Tehran still expressed nuclear ambitions. Steinitz claimed that Iran’s nuclear capability was equal to “30 North Koreas”, and that Iran is inches from crossing the “nuclear red line”.  Steinitz warned that allowing Iran to continue to operate nuclear facilities could alter “the balance of power once and for all between Islam and the Western World”.

The extreme picture painted by Steinitz’s was largely at odds with the views of world leaders, some of who are meeting at the Lough Erne resort in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland for this year’s G8 summit. A number of major powers, Russia, and critically the United States, welcomed Rouhani’s election, and expressed an eagerness to open a dialogue with the new regime.

The offices of Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Barack Obama, who are both attending the summit, released separate statements congratulating Rouhani on his victory.

The Russian president “expressed confidence Hassan Rouhani’s work will further strengthen Russian-Iranian relations,” the Kremlin said.

Washington responded to Rouhani’s conciliatory speech with cautious optimism, seemingly appreciating the incoming president’s attempts to placate the distrust between Iran and the Obama administration. The White House said that it is committed to finding a “diplomatic solution that will fully address the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme”.

While the United States and Russia have both expressed their willingness to engage with the new regime, it remains to be seen whether Rouhani is willing to negotiate the future of his country’s nuclear programme – a staple of Ahmadinejad’s rule – in order to develop a political equipoise.

“A new opportunity has been created by this great epic, and the nations who tout democracy and open dialogue should speak to the Iranian people with respect and recognise the rights of the Islamic republic,” Rouhani exclaimed after his victory.

Rouhani was elected on the first count, beating five other candidates to win 50.7 per cent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Tehran’s mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, only managed to secure 16.5 per cent of the ballots.

Facebook Releases Info about NSA Requests

Social networking giant Facebook has revealed that it received thousands of requests from the US government for the personal data of users in the second half of 2012. The Palo Alto, California-based company made the disclosure after being granted permission by Washington to release data pertaining to previously classified government requisitions.

The world’s largest social network, majority controlled by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, requested permission to release the information to the public in order to limit the damage the recent NSA hacking scandal has had on its user base, experts believe.

Facebook says that it received between 9,000 and 10,000 requests for information from the US government – and by proxy from the NSA – in the last six months of last year, a figure which represents a “tiny fraction” of its overall user base. The company said that the requests, which in all affected around 20,000 users, were lodged by government sources seeking to root our foreign and domestic terrorist organisations, and criminal fugitives.

The US Justice Department said that many of the requests were made as part of routine police investigations, a practice which is also commonplace in Ireland and the UK.

Facebook’s general counsel Ted Ulloyt explained in a blog post that the company hopes the disclosure will help to repair Facebook’s often tenuous relationship with its users, and provide a measure of reassurance to users worried about their online privacy.

“With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one per cent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of US state, local, or federal government request,” Ulloyt wrote. “We hope this helps put into perspective the numbers involved, and lays to rest some of the hyperbolic and false assertions in some recent press accounts about the frequency and scope of the data requests that we receive.”

Facebook added that it did not comply with all of the requests, challenging some. In all, the internet behemoth said it complied with 79% of the NSA’s applications.

Facebook was not the only internet giant to move to allay fears of privacy breaches – Google and Microsoft also made similar disclosures after submitting appeals of their own. Microsoft said that it received slightly less of the so-called data security warrants than Facebook at between 6,000 and 7,000, while Google says it is still negotiating with lawmakers in the hope of providing users with information about exactly why it received and complied with the requests.

“We have always believed that it is important to differentiate between the different types of Government requests,” the Mountain View, California company said in a statement. The company added that it already deals with criminal requests and national security requests separately – explaining that any less would be a step in the wrong direction for users.

In an open letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder, the company’s top brass insisted they had “nothing to hide”. “Google’s numbers clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” the company’s chief legal officer David Drummond wrote.

The disclosures come after the companies reached an agreement with the US Justice Department to release some details – though experts say the amount of data released is nowhere near adequate enough to quell internet users’ fears and address reservations. Some companies which are known to have been the subject of requisitions – like Apple, PayPal and Yahoo – have not yet attempted to provide reassurances. Apple and AOL have released statements saying that they never heard of PRISM – the NSA operation under which the requests for user data was made.

After Facebook and Microsoft made their announcements, a spokesperson for the Justice Department confirmed that the government had “reached agreements with certain providers” about the release of some information. The spokesperson, Andrew Ames, explained that the companies’ requests were granted “to afford greater transparency to the public while preserving confidentiality required for law enforcement or national security reasons”. Some, he said, were the result of the issuance of criminal warrants or grand jury subpoenas.

Fermanagh G8 Summit Set to be Among Most Peaceful Ever

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called on all segments of the North’s population to ensure that this year’s G8 summit is remembered as the “most peaceful summit in G8 history”.

McGuinness, who was speaking on the lawn of 10 Downing Street after a meeting with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and British Prime Minister David Cameron, said that he hopes “those people who are visitors to our country over the course of the next couple of days will respect the work to build the peace process that we have been engaged in for many years”.

Only a small scattering of protests have been held so far in the UK, with one high-profile raid last weekend leading to the detention of a handful of protesters in London, some 500km from the Lough Erne resort where this year’s summit is taking place. Smaller protests have been already taken place in Dublin and Belfast, both of which are reported to have ended without any violence or intervention from authorities, and although some protestors are expected to travel to Enniskillen – the town nearest to the resort – to protest in the next few days, the demonstrations are expected to pass off peacefully.

“My belief is its relatively small numbers would be wanting to cause trouble and the vast, vast sense of this is people wanting to protest peacefully,” commented Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Alastair Finlay. “The vast majority of people are from Nothern Ireland or the island of Ireland and they don’t want us being put on the map for the wrong reasons.”

Finlay explained that although a small number of dissidents, mostly republican, are planning to use the summit to highlight their cause, it is likely that the 8,000 plus police and 900 strong Garda contingent which will patrol the Monaghan and Cavan borders, will present a strong enough security presence to deter any attacks.

“The sad reality is the dissidents are there, they will want to draw attention to themselves, but usually in a way that is targeting people (PSNI officers) and will be away from where the essence of the strong security round an iconic figure like the President (Obama) would be,” Finlay said.

Although the primary concern for the PSNI and Garda is rogue dissidents, the forces will also be tasked with policing planned protests, most of which have followed proper procedure and informed the authorities of their intentions beforehand. While the protests are not likely to pose the same security risk as dichotomous republicans, organised protests, like London in 2005, when the G8 was held in Gleneagles, Scotland, and in Rome a few years later, prove that even planned marches can pose problems for the authorities.

Among the groups planning demonstrations in Enniskillen is the Socialist Workers Party, which is billing its march as an ‘anti-summit’. “There’s going to be a lot of different groups there,” commented People Before Profit’s Brian O’Boyle. “So you might have every group from charities to trade unions to radical left organisations to the environmentalists. They’ll all have their own specific focus.”

Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy added that he doesn’t think protesters will flock from all corners of Europe to march, as was the case in London and Rome, predicting that most will travel to Enniskillen from somewhere in Ireland.

Around 1,500 people turned out in Belfast earlier on Monday to take party in a march organised by the Northern branch of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Like the protests in Fermanagh, many of the attendees were far-left liberals, with Amnesty International, pro-Palestinian groups and the anti-fracking community also represented. Observers estimated that around 1,500 protesters attended the march, which passed off peacefully without need for any significant police presence — a feature which had been a staple of any Northern Irish protest until only a few years ago.

While many of the headlines surrounding the G8 will focus on the issues highlighted by protesters, the leaders congregating in Lough Erne will be penning deals and thrashing out policies aimed at resuscitating global economic growth. US president Barack Obama has already held bilateral talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin and David Cameron prior to the summit, and is widely expected to focus his attention of shoring up ties with Pacific powers Japan and China during his time in Co Fermanagh.

Although each of the powers and protestors has its own agenda, the largest benefactor of the talks is set to be the host, Northern Ireland, with as mentioned above, a high-profile investment package already approved by Westminster, and the news that Obama is ready to engage with Stormont on a deeper level, including creating the position of a permanent US envoy to the region – reason enough some commentators believe for protesters in the North to keep their anti-capitalist sentiment to themselves for the next week.

Iran Hacks Energy Firms, US Says

Officials in Washington are claiming that Iranian hackers have stepped up attacks on the cyber networks of U.S. multinational corporations, focusing their attention on energy companies.

One former official said that the hackers have gone far enough for their actions to “worry people”, with the infiltrations enough in some cases to allow the attackers to control and manipulate the flow of oil and gas in the U.S..

The attacks follow similar action taken by the U.S. on Iran, where the Stuxnet worm – developed jointly the U.S. and Israel – managed to knock out an Iranian nuclear facility. Officials have again warned that Iran’s actions, which are thought to be more dangerous than the relatively benign Chinese attacks which gained publicity in recent months, could provoke yet more retaliation.

“This is representative of stepped-up cyber activity by the Iranian regime. The more they do this, the more our concerns grow. What they have done so far has certainly been noticed, and they should be cautious,” a Washington official explained.

The Iranian regime has denied any involvement in the attacks, claiming that the country has chosen to take the higher ground and ignore attacks made on its systems by U.S. based hackers.

“Although Iran has been repeatedly the target of state-sponsored cyber attacks, attempting to target Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities, power grids, oil terminals and other industrial sectors, Iran has not ever retaliated against those illegal cyber attacks,” commented Alireza Miryousefi, Iran’s spokesman at the United Nations.

“In the lack of international legal instruments to address cyber warfare, Iran has been at the forefront of calling for the creation of such instruments,” Miryousefi explained. “We categorically reject these baseless allegations used only to divert attentions.”

Although Washington has felt the need to speak out about these latest attacks, Iranian infiltration of U.S. computer networks is nothing new – Iranian hackers have were blamed for attacks on U.S. banking systems in late 2012 and early this year.

News of the hacks comes about two weeks after Washington warned citizens of possible impending attacks, when officials said that they were “highly concerned” about the potential for large-scale disruption to the country’s energy network. Months before, chemical, water and electrical plants had been highlighted as possible targets for hackers by officials in the U.S. capital.

The information provided by officials builds on an executive order handed down by President Barack Obama in February to distribute information about potential cyber attacks more quickly.

Is Cash Making a Comeback?

It has long been accepted that cashless payments are the future; and that before long currency will be superfluous, an archaic notion rendered obsolete by ways of paying viewed as safer and more convenient.

Since the century began cash usage has been on the decline as customers opted to pay for goods and services with plastic with greater frequency. Banks and other financial institutions anticipated the change in attitude in advance, and have been prepared for the switch to business conducted exclusively through electronic media for more than 20 years. Virtually any new bank account a customer opens today comes with a complimentary debit card – a provision that contributed greatly to the prevalence of digital payments over the last decade or so.

The switch to world where business is conducted solely through machines gathered pace at the turn of the millennium, but since, the showed signs of slowing, and last year reversed as more than half of all purchases in the UK were made by cash – a development that ended 10 years of gains by plastic. Last year, 54% of all transactions were conducted using cash, new research has revealed.

Although the reasons why more consumers are choosing to pay by cash have not yet been studied, the organisation that compiled the figures, the Payments Council, speculates that it may be partly because paying with cash allows us to keep a closer eye on our spending, while reports in the media suggest that wide ranging mistrust of banks – in particular their ability to handle our funds – may also have contributed, as a staggering £6,139 was withdrawn from bank machines around the UK every second last year.

The Payments Council, an independent organisation set up by the UK government in 2007 to monitor payment trends and consumer habits, says that the cash machine remains the most popular way for account holders to access their funds, and that last year the number of cash machines in the UK reached 66,000 – an all-time high.

“Cash is still a vital part of our day-to-day lives, and more than half of all our payments are in cash, reflecting its easy use and wide acceptance,” commented David Hensley, Head of Cash at the Payments Council. More than 20.8 billion transactions were carried out with currency in the UK last year, compared to 20.6 billion the year before, the newly published research has found.

The report comes shortly after a number of banks decided to reintroduce £5 to their cash machines – a move aimed at boosting the numbers of visitors to ATMs, and increasing the amount of money they withdraw. The idea was welcomed by customers across the board, and has led to calls from consumers outside the UK for similar steps to be taken in their countries.

“The UK is one of the few European countries whose cash machine network is still growing. We are currently seeing an increase in cash withdrawals, but the challenge is to make sure the UK’s cash machine network still provides a service that customers want in 10 and 20 years’ time,” explained John Howells, chief executive at Link ATM Network, the company that accommodates virtually all of the transactions between bank and building societies in the UK and their customers.

The resurgence of traditional cash payments comes despite new, more advanced payment technologies being rolled out by card makers and banks every year.  Most recently, a new “wave” contactless payment system was touted as the next big thing, however its release has fallen largely on deaf ears as consumers remain wary of new developments to technologies that can put their funds at risk. Conducting transactions by smartphone, a payment method introduced by many US retailers eager to cash in on young, tech savvy consumers, is a practice which has been gaining momentum in across the pond, but even as Barclays and other UK banks roll out their equivalent, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the trend will catch on here.

Although the financial crisis, and perhaps more specifically the failure of Northern Rock — and the footage of customers queuing to rescue their money from the doomed bank — may have had an impact on consumers’ collective decision to move away from card dependency, events like last year’s Sony credit card fraud scandal, which left potentially millions of users’ personal and financial details exposed to online fraudsters, may also have made customers more wary of pulling out their card for every purchase.

Even though their customers have made their trepidations about digital payments clear, it is likely that banks will push back with more electronic options, largely because cash is expensive too for them to handle, and a switch to an exclusively digital set up would save them on millions of pounds on costs like transport, security and storage, expenses which many financial institutions regard as a nuisance.