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Barriers and bollards protect pedestrians at Swim Trials, College World Series in Omaha
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Temporary concrete barriers have been installed in downtown Omaha to protect crowds going to and from the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the College World Series.

A line of barriers now stretches along 10th Street in front of the CHI Health Center. Others have been placed in various spots around TD Ameritrade Park, including on the northwest corner in front of “The Road to Omaha” statue.

The group that manages the convention center, arena and ballpark worked with the Omaha Police Department to strategically place the protective barriers, a spokeswoman said.

The devices are designed to stop a vehicle if someone were to veer off the street, said Kristyna Engdahl, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority.

The 10th Street corridor becomes a high-traffic pedestrian area during the popular sporting events. It runs along Lot B, one of the spots where tailgaters will set up shop during the World Series.

“Of all the changes happening in 2021, security is something that remains pretty consistent and is always a top priority,” Engdahl said.

The barriers will be taken down at the end of the men’s college baseball tournament.

The temporary barriers are in addition to permanent metal bollards that were installed last year. Those metal poles form semi-circles at the edges of intersections such as 10th and Capitol Streets, 10th and Cass Streets and 10th and Mike Fahey Streets. More bollards are expected to be installed in other downtown areas in the future.

The bollards would have made their debut during Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in 2020. They also would have been new to visitors of the 2020 Swim Trials and World Series, but all three events were canceled because of the coronavirus.

The U.S. Homeland Security Department worked with MECA to identify locations that needed those permanent protections, MECA has said. The cost to park in MECA-controlled lots rose slightly last year, in part to help pay for the permanent bollards.

Another security reminder for those heading to Wave II of the Swim Trials or the World Series: Clear bags are required inside the convention center, arena and ballpark. The policy helps security officers see everything that enters the facility and speeds up the security check process, Engdahl said. Visitors also will be scanned with electronic wands.

“We’re trying to help mitigate crowding to the best of our ability,” she said.

Photos: Final Day of Wave 1 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha

Westside art class gives kids with disabilities creative freedom — and nice gallery space

A couple of dozen fish — made of fired clay and painted in shades of green and blue — hang at the entrance of the generative gallery at the Kaneko art center on the edge of the Old Market.

They form a mobile that welcomes visitors to a unique and joyful exhibit, displaying rainbow-colored paintings, assemblages and tiny houses filled with items that express the artists’ feelings and experiences.

Those artists aren’t the typical professionals who display works at the gallery. They’re Westside High School students with a range of physical and mental challenges who recently finished the school’s pilot semester of Adapted Art, a program that strives to meet the needs of all learners.

Omahan Therman Statom was a guest artist for the program. The noted glass artist’s work is displayed at Kaneko, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, among many other locations across the country.

He has been a resident artist at the school for five years, but the recent class was particularly rewarding.

“The last three months, no matter what has happened to me, after meeting with these kids, I don’t care,” he said.

The purpose of the class is to let neuro-diverse students — with autism, loss of hearing, lack of mobility and other challenges — tap into their creativity and gain confidence by making their own artistic decisions. It’s also an exploration of ways to develop and enrich the experiences of students in the public school system, Statom said.

It fulfilled a longtime goal for art teacher Erin Lunsford. She was concerned that she didn’t get enough time with the neuro-diverse kids in her classes because she had only a minute or so with each student after she introduced the lessons and they got to work.

“That’s not enough for anybody, but especially for students with very unique needs,” she said.


The works in a Westside High School student art show at Kaneko are inspired by artists such as Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock.

Lunsford, who’s also the art department chairwoman, created the class with Jenny Brockman, the school district’s coordinator of secondary special education. With its specialized enrollment, the course departs from Westside’s “inclusive mix” classrooms.

In Adapted Art, Lunsford teaches students about noted artists such as Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. They study genres, biographies, philosophies and examples of the artists’ work, then make art inspired by what they have seen.

As the class progressed, the teacher learned as much as she taught.

“I slowed down and learned how to listen and give them confidence to make their choices,” she said.

For Statom, it was a continuation of work he had already done with kids at various children’s hospitals, some of whom had autism or cancer.

“You have to review your own thinking,” he said, “You can’t use generalities. It has all been built on human contact (and) giving those kids power.”

At times, striving to connect made him feel like a stand-up comedian. During a lesson about stenciling, he let kids paint on his head.

“Later on, I forgot and went to a hotel, and I got looks,” he said.

A big part of the project was figuring out how to change adult mindsets, especially among fellow teachers and the various people who help special education students navigate their days.

It was hard for some well-intentioned adults to let the kids do their own work, which undermined the point of the class.

“I saw someone move a kid’s arm, and I’m like, ‘Stop that,’” Statom said. “Sometimes, I would catch teachers painting on the kids’ art, kids at their side.”

Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Parents were grateful that their kids had freedom to create original art and were impressed with what they accomplished, Lunsford said.

And, like professional artists, the students got their own show with a fancy opening party, thanks to Statom’s connection with Kaneko.

“From the beginning, I wanted this to be a first-class show, and I always wanted it to be (at Kaneko), and Therman made that happen,” Lunsford said.

She said it was cool to watch students find their artwork for their parents.

More than 200 people attended the opening, including members of the Westside school bard. There were refreshments — catered to meet the dietary needs of many students — and a lot of joy.

“It was a really powerful event,” said Amanda Kephart, Kaneko’s community engagement and public program manager.

She said Kaneko was the perfect venue for the show: “Creativity is in everything we do.”

The exhibition will be on view through June 18, then each student will keep his or her own creations.

Meanwhile, other local school districts are interested in crafting their own versions of the Adapted Art class. Lunsford and Statom also hope to speak about it at a New York City conference.

Statom aspires to expand it outside brick-and-mortar walls.

“We probably will explore the kids doing a piece of public art,” he said.

He’s all-in for the course in the future.

“The best thing,” he said, “was when kids started reenrolling and asking, ‘Can I do this next year?’”

Our best Omaha staff photos of June 2021

Ransomware hackers remain largely out of reach behind Russia’s cybercurtain

WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities are running into a major obstacle in holding hackers responsible for an onslaught of ransomware attacks: The extortionists remain out of reach in Russia, safely ensconced behind a cybercurtain as difficult to penetrate as the iron one that defined the Cold War.

Recent high-profile ransomware assaults have added urgency to U.S. government efforts to combat Russia-linked hackers who have disrupted East Coast U.S. fuel supplies, raised fears about nationwide meat shortages and exposed sensitive files from a Southern California police force.

The problem, Justice Department officials say, is that the Kremlin believes it benefits from allowing such hackers to target U.S. interests, gathering valuable intelligence in the process.

“The criminal hacking the Russian government is willing to tolerate and take advantage of is beyond what we see in virtually every other country,” said John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security prosecutor who has battled ransomware since 2017. “It is very difficult to stop hacking when it is occurring in a country that is more than just tolerating it, but is quite happy with it.”

President Joe Biden is expected to discuss Russian ransomware attacks with allies during his European trip, hoping to find common ground in confronting the Kremlin. Advisers say he will also seek to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin during a June 16 meeting in Geneva to rein in hackers.

Biden issued an executive order last month that White House officials say will enhance cybersecurity of federal government networks and enhance security standards for commercial software.

The Justice Department is also seeking new ways to combat what a top agency official called an “epidemic” and Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress was a “very, very serious threat” that is “getting worse and worse.” The FBI on Monday managed to recover $2.3 million in difficult-to-trace cryptocurrency that a pipeline company paid in ransom to Russia-linked hackers to unlock its systems, a move that Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said showed the Justice Department will use “all available tools to make these attacks more costly and less profitable for criminal enterprises.”

Cybersecurity and foreign policy experts are less than sanguine the Biden administration efforts will put a real dent in ransomware assaults launched from Russia. Curtailing the attacks, they say, will require a worldwide pressure campaign that has yet to materialize because previous U.S. administrations and foreign governments didn’t take the threat seriously enough or feared intensifying tensions with Putin.

“The Russians have to be afraid of us,” said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Russian government, for its part, has denied it directs cybercriminals to attack U.S. interests, or protects them from U.S. prosecution. Putin told Russian state TV Channel One last week that accusing his government of involvement was ridiculous.

“It’s just nonsense, it’s funny,” Putin said. “It’s absurd to accuse Russia of this.”

U.S. officials allege Russians have long garnered support from a government that encourages their work because it generates intelligence for spy services and sows chaos and confusion in the West.

Experts pointed to the case of Maksim Yakubets, 33, as an example of a hacker seeking to profit from his crimes while helping out Moscow. In late 2019, the U.S. government indicted the flamboyant Ukrainian-born and Russia-based hacker, a leader of a cybergang called Evil Corp, on charges he helped develop malware that was used to steal tens of millions of dollars from banks and other financial institutions. Some of the malware created by Yakubets assists in the installation of ransomware, authorities say.

The Treasury Department went further when it announced sanctions on Yakubets, alleging he worked for a Russian intelligence organization and “provided direct assistance to the Russian government.” Starting in 2017, he was tasked by the Kremlin, the Treasury Department alleged, to acquire “confidential documents through cyber-enabled means and conducting cyber-enabled operations on its behalf.”

Yakubets, who resides in Russia, could not be reached for comment.

Hackers in Russia have spent decades penetrating computer networks of retailers, banks, hospitals, and other businesses to steal sensitive personal information to sell on the black market, cybersecurity experts say. About 10 years ago, hackers began turning to ransomware, a shift that cybersecurity experts likened to a U.S. crime wave in the 1920s and 1930s in which gangsters turned from robbing banks to more profitable and easier kidnappings.

It’s a fairly simple scheme. Hackers trick people into clicking on an attachment or a link in an email that contains malware. The malware infects the servers and encrypts the data, locking out legitimate users, and hackers then demand a ransom payment in exchange for a key that reopens the networks.

Thanks to the popularity in difficult-to-trace cryptocurrencies, the crime has steadily proliferated. In 2015, the FBI reported, U.S. victims paid about $25 million in cyber ransom. By 2020, such victims paid at least $350 million in ransom to hackers, a 300% increase over the previous year, according to a report issued by the Institute for Security and Technology.

Hospitals, school systems and police departments are frequent victims because they either rely heavily on digital records or have relatively lackluster defenses. Cybersecurity experts say hackers also target companies that operate critical U.S. infrastructure, which often have deep pockets and face immense pressure to limit disruption of their services.

“Russia loves this kind of hack because it disrupts everyday life for Americans,” said Frank Montoya, a former FBI counterintelligence agent.

Colonial Pipeline, which supplies about 45% of the jet fuel, gasoline and heating oil consumed on the East Coast, last month paid $4.4 million in bitcoin to hackers to unlock its networks after it was taken over by ransomware.

The FBI said the hackers relied on malware provided by DarkSide, a Russia-based cybercrime group that sells hackers malware in exchange for a cut of ransom proceeds; Biden said the hackers were also believed to be located in Russia.

On June 2, the bureau attributed a ransomware attack on the U.S. and Australian computer servers of JBS, the world’s largest meat supplier, to a notorious Russia-linked cybergang that goes by the name REvil or Sodinokibi. The hack forced the company to idle plants, raising concerns about potential surges in meat price and shortages. JBS issued a statement on Wednesday saying it paid $11 million in ransom.

Identifying such hackers is not easy, former federal agents say. Capturing them is even tougher. Moscow refuses to extradite cybercriminals, and it alerts them when U.S. authorities file arrest warrants with international police agencies, former law enforcement officials said.

The Justice Department has successfully extradited 18 Russian hackers of the dozens wanted on computer crime charges — when they slipped up and visited other countries on vacation or business, officials said.

Yet even when such hackers are arrested outside Russia, they don’t always end up in U.S. courtrooms. Russia exerts enormous political pressure on foreign governments to block extradition to the U.S., and it has lodged competing charges in the hopes of convincing judges to send citizens home, where prosecutions are quickly dropped, according to former federal law enforcement officials.

Alexsey Belan, a Russian national, was arrested in Greece in 2013 on U.S. hacking charges but managed to make bail and slipped back to Russia, with Moscow’s assistance, federal law enforcement officials say.

Back home, Belan allegedly wasted no time getting back to his computer terminal. He was was indicted in the U.S. in 2017 on charges of orchestrating the massive security breach of Yahoo. Information from more than 500 million accounts were stolen in the cyberattack, which an indictment alleged was directed by two Russian government agents.

Robert Anderson, a former top FBI official, said that combating Russian hackers was among his most challenging jobs at the bureau.

“It is difficult to address this when the line between state and criminal is so blurry,” he said.

Biden lays out US vax donations, urges world leaders to join

ST. IVES, England — The Group of Seven nations is set to commit to sharing at least 1 billion coronavirus shots with the world, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Thursday, with half coming from the U.S. and 100 million from the U.K. as President Joe Biden urged allies to join in speeding the pandemic’s end and bolstering the strategic position of the world’s wealthiest democracies.

Johnson’s announcement on the eve of the G-7 leaders’ summit in England came hours after Biden committed to donating 500 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and previewed a coordinated effort by the advanced economies to make vaccination widely and speedily available everywhere.

“We’re going to help lead the world out of this pandemic working alongside our global partners,” Biden said, adding that on Friday the G-7 nations would join the U.S. in outlining their vaccine donation commitments. The G-7 also includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The prime minister’s office said the first 5 million U.K. doses would be shared in the coming weeks, with the remainder coming over the next year. Biden’s own commitment was on top of the 80 million doses he has already pledged to donate by the end of June.

“At the G7 Summit I hope my fellow leaders will make similar pledges so that, together, we can vaccinate the world by the end of next year and build back better from coronavirus,” Johnson said in a statement referencing Biden’s campaign slogan.

Earlier Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed the U.S. commitment and said Europe should do the same. He said France would share at least 30 million doses globally by year’s end.

“I think the European Union needs to have at least the same level of ambition as the United States,” he said at a press conference. He added that time was of the essence, saying, “It’s almost more important to say how many (doses) we deliver the next month than making promises to be fulfilled in 18 months from now.”

The G-7 leaders have faced mounting pressure to outline their global vaccine sharing plans, especially as inequities in supply around the world have become more pronounced. In the U.S., there is a large vaccine stockpile, and the demand for shots has dropped precipitously in recent weeks.

Biden predicted that the U.S. doses and the overall G-7 commitment would “supercharge” the global vaccination campaign, adding that the U.S. doses come with no strings attached.

“Our vaccine donations don’t include pressure for favors or potential concessions,” Biden said. “We’re doing this to save lives, to end this pandemic, that’s it.”

The U.S. commitment is to buy and donate 500 million Pfizer doses for distribution through the global COVAX alliance to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union, bringing the first steady supply of mRNA vaccine to the countries that need it most.

The Pfizer agreement came together with some urgency in the last four weeks at Biden’s direction, said a senior White House official, both to meet critical needs overseas and to be ready for announcement at the G-7. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans, added that the Biden administration was to apply the same wartime posture applied to the vaccine rollout in the U.S. to its effort to share vaccines globally.

Biden said the 500 million U.S.-manufactured vaccines will be shipped starting in August, with the goal of distributing 200 million by the end of the year. The remaining 300 million doses would be shipped in the first half of 2022. A price tag for the doses was not released, but the U.S. is set to be COVAX’s largest vaccine donor in addition to its single largest funder with a $4 billion commitment.

The well-funded global alliance has faced a slow start to its vaccination campaign, as richer nations have locked up billions of doses through contracts directly with drug manufacturers. Biden’s move, officials said, was meant to ensure that a substantial amount of manufacturing capacity remains open to the wealthy nations. Just last month, the European Commission signed an agreement to purchase as many as 1.8 billion Pfizer doses in the next two years, a significant share of the company’s upcoming production — though the bloc reserved the right to donate some of its doses to COVAX.

White House officials said the ramped-up distribution program fits a theme Biden plans to hit frequently during his week in Europe: that Western democracies, and not authoritarian states, can deliver the most good for the world.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that G-7 leaders are “converging” around the idea that vaccine supply can be increased in several ways, including by countries sharing more of their own doses, helping to increase global manufacturing capacity and doing more across the “chain of custody” from when the vaccine is produced to when it is injected into someone in the developing world.

Biden, in his remarks, harked back to the Detroit-area workers who 80 years ago built tanks and planes “that helped defeat the threat of global fascism in World War II.”

“They built what became known as the arsenal of democracy,” Biden said. “Now a new generation of American men and women, working with today’s latest technology, is going to build a new arsenal to defeat the current enemy of world peace, health and stability: COVID-19.”

Last week, the White House unveiled plans to donate an initial allotment of 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas, mostly through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program, promising infusions for South and Central America, Asia, Africa and others.

Officials say a quarter of that excess will be kept in reserve for emergencies and for the U.S. to share directly with allies and partners, including South Korea, Taiwan and Ukraine. Johnson said the U.K. would follow a similar model with its doses, holding 20% in reserve for bilateral agreements but sending the vast majority to COVAX.

China and Russia have shared their domestically produced vaccines with some needy countries, often with hidden strings attached. Sullivan said Biden “does want to show — rallying the rest of the world’s democracies — that democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere.”

The U.S.-produced mRNA vaccines have also proven to be more effective against both the original strain and more dangerous variants of COVID-19 than the more conventional vaccines produced by China and Russia. Some countries that have had success in deploying those conventional vaccines have nonetheless seen cases spike.