Week in review: Katrina's wrath

As Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf shore, the Web became a catalyst for first-hand information, relief efforts and scams.

Steven Musil
Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
6 min read
As Hurricane Katrina made its deadly and destructive mark along the Gulf shore, the Web became a catalyst for first-hand information, relief efforts and scams.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Gulf Coast early Monday, wreaking havoc on Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Thousands are feared dead in the wake of what could be the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

New Orleans could be underwater for quite a while, according to experts, and the oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico may face years of repairs. The scope of the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, combined with the fact that New Orleans is below sea level, has created an engineering nightmare, according to Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley who also worked for more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry.

The extent of the damage was exacerbated by inadequacies in the levee system and failures of other safety precautions, he added. Cleaning up the offshore oil and chemical refineries poses an even more daunting challenge, which experts believe will lead to increases in the price of fuel. Some of the pipes extend 2,000 feet below the surface of the water, Bea said.

Hurricane Katrina has spawned more than misery and destruction; a new wave of scam e-mails and Web sites are exploiting the tragedy. Phony sites and e-mails, purporting to offer help to hurricane victims or provide more news on the destruction, are making their rounds on the Internet.

One spam campaign that's circulating offers breaking news reports but tricks people into clicking a link that takes them to a bogus Web site, according to security firm Sophos. The site attempts to exploit vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer and install malicious code, including the Troj/Cgab-A Trojan horse, on a victim's system, Sophos said.

Meanwhile, the tech community is rallying around victims of Hurricane Katrina, offering technical assistance, aiding the homeless and gathering relief donations. Wireless giant Sprint Nextel announced Tuesday that it would dispatch nearly two dozen specialty vehicles to coordinate the recovery effort and restore communications services.

Web giants Amazon.com and eBay pitched in by helping to collect donations and raise funds. Free community Web site Craigslist is hosting pages listing volunteer opportunities and offers, pleas for information on loved ones, and free temporary housing for those left homeless by the hurricane.

The Web provided some of the most vivid, first-hand accounts of the storm's destructive path in the form of blogs, online photo galleries and discussion forums. Blogs run by two New Orleans news outlets--the Times-Picayune newspaper and NBC TV affiliate WDSU--were among the most prolific. The Times-Picayune blog, run in partnership with local news site Nola.com, mainly ran contributions from its own reporters but also included some photos and reports from "citizen journalists." The site's online forums gave readers a place to exchange questions and information.

CNET News.com readers were divided over where the blame lies for the hurricane's pain.

"Obviously, President Bush can't be blamed for a natural catastrophe like a hurricane," Guy Jones wrote in News.com's TalkBack reader forum. "He can, however, be blamed for cutting down Louisiana's request earlier this year for funding to shore up and expand the levee system protecting New Orleans."

Other readers disagreed. "Sure, the Bush administration could have provided funding for a New Orleans fix, but the money was demanded elsewhere," wrote Earl Benser in TalkBack.

Deputy Microsoft
Microsoft is laying down the law, or at least getting behind it.

Expanding its efforts to help law enforcement with cybercrime investigations, Microsoft plans in the coming months to launch a new online resource. The Web site will include training, tips and tools for investigations and information on cybercrime, said Richard LaMagna, director of worldwide law enforcement programs at Microsoft.

Microsoft's online training will include simple forensic skills--for example, guidance on digging up information on the hard drive of a seized Windows PC, and basic online investigation techniques such as trace routes and Whois domain database lookups, LaMagna said. Other information on the Web site will include details on recent legislation. Microsoft also plans to offer specialized technical support to investigators.

As Microsoft readies the next version of its Windows operating system, called Vista, the software giant is building in unprecedented levels of safeguards against video piracy. For the first time, the Windows operating system will wall off some audio and video processes almost completely from users and outside programmers, in hopes of making them harder for hackers to reach.

The company is establishing digital security checks that could even shut off a computer's connections to some monitors or televisions if antipiracy procedures that stop high-quality video copying aren't in place. In short, the company is bending over backward--and investing considerable technological resources--to make sure Hollywood studios are happy with the next version of Windows.

Microsoft itself has been a victim of piracy, but this week a Connecticut man pleaded guilty in federal court to selling the software giant's source code over the Internet. William P. Genovese Jr., 28, pleaded guilty to charges that he unlawfully sold and attempted to sell portions of Microsoft's source code for Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000.

According to federal prosecutors, Genovese initially found the source code in February last year, after another party misappropriated the code and distributed it over the Internet without Microsoft's authorization. The defendant, who went under the alias of "illwill" and "xillwillx@yahoo.com," then posted the code to his site and offered it for sale.

Apple's tune
Apple Computer is preparing a major announcement next week, dropping hints of something as critical to the company's future as the release of the original iPod in 2001. The company sent an invitation to reporters for a "special event" being held Sept. 7 in San Francisco.

"1,000 songs in your pocket changed everything," the invitation reads, referring to the release of the first 5GB iPod nearly four years ago. "Here we go again."

Research firm iSuppli recently reported that Samsung Electronics was dedicating a large amount--perhaps as much as 40 percent--of its flash memory production to Apple, leading to speculation that the Mac maker was preparing a larger-capacity version of its flash-based Shuffle player, or even switching its iPod Mini to a flash-based technology.

However, Apple was dealt a blow when Creative Technology was awarded a patent for a user interface found in its portable media players and in competing devices, such as Apple's iPod. The digital entertainment company said that on Aug. 9 it received U.S. Patent No. 6,928,433, described as "automatic hierarchical categorization of music by metadata."

Creative applied for the patent--which it has dubbed the "Zen Patent," named for its Zen music player--on Jan. 5, 2001. But in a conference call with reporters, Craig McHugh, president of Creative Technology subsidiary Creative Labs, declined to specify what precisely will happen next.

Meanwhile, Apple did an about face when it launched a promotion for its no-frills Mac Mini computer, allowing customers to return the machine for a full refund after a 30-day "test-drive." However, a day later, Apple reversed itself.

The rapid retraction of the offer prompted plenty of speculation online among bloggers and those in the Mac community.

"This couldn't have been a promo which was initiated lightly. It had to have been approved by Steve himself. But was it too successful? Did more people try it than imagined? After all, any machines returned would have to be resold refurbished through (other) channels," one Apple fan speculated.

Some bloggers also suggested that Apple could have sold out of Mac Minis quicker than anticipated.

Also of note
Google is expanding its lucrative Internet advertising network into the print world in a bold attempt to capture traditional ad dollars...The U.K. Foreign Office is slamming an anti-secrecy activist who listed online alleged spies and secret agents...Google has asked a federal judge in California to rule that Kai-Fu Lee's contract with Microsoft is unenforceable and that the researcher should be allowed to join Google unfettered by the terms of the employment deal with his former company.