The Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2006

You saw the stories that dominated the headlines in 2006: the war in Iraq, North Korea’s nuclear tests, and the U.S. midterm elections. But what about the news that remained under the radar? From the Bush administration’s post-Katrina power grab to a growing arms race in Latin America to the new hackable passports, FP delivers the Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2006.

Hackable Passports

In October, the U.S. State Department began issuing biometric ePassports that contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag under the back cover. The tiny chip holds the usual passport data, including a digital photo. The motive behind adding the chips is ostensibly good: to combat counterfeiting and illegal immigration.

But a German hacker quickly found a vulnerability. With a laptop and a chip reader he bought for $200, he was able to steal data from an encrypted RFID tag, potentially allowing him to clone an ePassport. And its not just Americans who are at risk. Twenty-seven countries (mostly in Europe) that participate in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program are required by U.S. law to issue the new electronic passports to their citizens. The Dutch and British media have already reported major security flaws in the new IDs.

So, whats a security conscious citizen to do? Again, the answer may come out of Germany. A group of hackers there recommends that people microwave the new passports to destroy the chips. The State Department may want to go back to relying on a paper trail.

Whats Worse Than Bird Flu? The Cure.

M. Romana/AFP/Getty Images
In 2006, bird flu didnt become the killer pandemic everyone feared. In fact, there were no confirmed deaths in developed countries from bird flu. But the alarm, stoked by Western media reports, led to an unexpectedand unfortunateoutcome: A rash of abnormal behavior, hallucinations, and even deaths attributed to Tamiflu, the medicine marketed as a key drug capable of fighting the disease. In November, the Canadian health ministry issued a warning on Tamiflu after 10 Canadians taking the drug had died suspiciously. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received more than 100 reports of injury and delirium among Tamiflu takers for a 10-month period in 2005 and 2006. Thats nearly as many cases as were logged over the drugs five-year trial period. For now, the cure seems worse than the disease. Petro Powers Drop the Dollar

Juan Barretto/AFP/Getty Images If you thought record oil prices this year were a pain in your wallet, theres more bad news on the horizon. The latest Bank for International Settlements quarterly report, which tracks the investment trends of oil-producing countries, indicates that Russia and OPEC countries are moving their holdings out of dollars and into euros and yen. OPEC cut its holdings in the dollar by more than $5 billion during the first and second quarter of 2006. And Russia now keeps most of its new deposits in euros instead of dollars.

That decrease is swift and significantand helps to explain why the dollar recently fell to a 20-month low against the euro and a 14-year low against the British pound. Holding dollars while other currencies gain strength means less profit for oil producers. But if they rapidly divest themselves of dollars, it may weaken the currency and push up inflation in the United States. This new trend may be bigger trouble for the United States than high oil prices and surging Chinese exports, says Nouriel Roubini, a professor at New York Universitys Stern School of Business. If this years move away from the dollar is a sign of future thinking by oil producers, the pain felt at the pump may soon be the least of our worries.

The Gender Gap Gets Smaller

S. D'Souza/AFP/Getty Images It was a good year for women in politics. Female heads of state took office in Chile and Liberia, and Hillary Clinton and Sgolne Royal set tongues wagging in Washington and Paris over their own presidential prospects. But it was also a great year for future female leaders, especially those in poor countries.

A report released in February by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau found that the gender gap in secondary education is closing or has closed in most developing countries. Particularly in Latin America and Asia, girls are attending school at the same rateor higherthan boys. In 1990 in China, for example, 75 girls attended secondary school for every 100 boys. Today, that figure is 97. In India, girls enrollment shot up from 60 percent to 81 percent. Though sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind the rest of the world, it too saw more girls in the classroom.

The shift isnt due to an unexpected worldwide surge in favor of gender equality. The more likely explanation is that urbanization and economic development has boosted girls likelihood of attending school, as has a number of innovative government and private-sector programs. In India, for example, UNICEF credits basic sanitation and hygiene education programs in Alwar with increasing girls enrollment by 78 percent over a five-year period. Given the clear link between girls education and a societys economic success, its good news everyone can celebrate.