Business Highlights

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO


Tech industry groups, security experts back Apple

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A slew of tech industry groups and civil liberties advocates are filing court documents backing Apple in its fight with the FBI.

Several police groups, meanwhile, filed briefs in support of federal authorities who are seeking Apple's help in hacking an encrypted iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. The so-called "friends of the court" briefs come in advance of a March 22 hearing in which Apple is asking U.S. Magistrate Sheri Pym to reverse an order requiring Apple help authorities hack into the phone.

Among those backing Apple in the dispute are some of its biggest competitors, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.


Hacked! Business bank accounts vulnerable to cybercriminals

Cybercriminals took an average $32,000 from small business accounts, according to a December survey of owners by the advocacy group National Small Business Association. And businesses don't have the same legal protection from bank account fraud consumers have.

Any business is vulnerable, but small companies are less likely to have security departments and procedures to guard against online theft than big corporations do. They also don't have big revenue streams that are better able to absorb losses from a theft. And even if they get the money back, they still have to spend time and money dealing with the hassles of closing accounts and opening new ones.


Amazon amplifies its Alexa line of voice-controlled devices

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — is introducing two devices designed to amplify the role its voice-controlled assistant Alexa plays in people's homes and lives.

The products unveiled Thursday are echoes of Amazon's Echo, a cylinder-shaped speaker with Internet-connected microphones that became Alexa's first major showcase when it debuted in late 2014. Set these gadgets up and they'll listen for your voice and respond to commands — for instance, to read the morning's headlines.

Amazon hopes to outmaneuver rivals Google and Apple in their battle to build hubs in "smart" homes that are being furnished with appliances, electronics and other accoutrements that connect to the Internet.


Applications for jobless aid rise by 6K, still at low level

WASHINGTON (AP) — More Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, but their numbers remained low enough to suggest that layoffs are rare and the job market is healthy.

The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of people seeking jobless aid rose by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000, highest since the end of January. The less-volatile four-week moving average slipped by 1,750 to 270,250, lowest since late November. The number of people collecting benefits has dropped 6.2 percent over the past year to 2.26 million.


US productivity stuck in slow-growth mode

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. productivity fell in the final quarter of 2015 at the sharpest pace in nearly two years. The Labor Department said Thursday that productivity — the amount of output per hour of work — fell at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the October-December period.

For all of 2015, productivity rose just 0.7 percent, marking the fifth straight year of weak gains. Productivity is a key ingredient needed for rising living standards. Increased productivity enables businesses to pay employees higher wages without having to boost the cost of the products and services they sell.


Average US rate on 30-year mortgage ticks up to 3.64 percent

WASHINGTON (AP) — Average long-term U.S. mortgage rates rose this week for the first time in two months as global economic anxiety and market turbulence eased.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday the average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage increased to 3.64 percent from 3.62 percent last week. The benchmark rate remains below the 3.75 percent level it marked a year ago.

The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages edged up to 2.94 percent from 2.93 percent last week


First oil flows from Alaska reserve set aside in '23

NUIQSUT, Alaska (AP) — ConocoPhillips has become the first oil company to draw crude from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Rising from the edgeless, wind-scoured, snow-covered tundra is a million-pound drilling rig pulling the first commercial oil from a reserve set aside nearly a century ago. It's an area the size of Indiana, which President Warren G. Harding dedicated as an emergency oil supply for the U.S. Navy in 1923.

The Bureau of Land Management, which controls the reserve, in 2013 identified 12 million acres that could be available for development while setting aside 11 million acres to protect wild animals and grazing lands.


Google engineers working with UNICEF in Zika virus fight

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Google says a half dozen of its engineers are working to help Brazil track the Zika virus and the mosquito that spreads it by doing one of the things the search engine giant does best: write algorithms.

Volunteer Google engineers in San Francisco and New York are working with UNICEF counterparts to create a system that combines several types of data to help predict where the Aedes aegypti mosquito might next be particularly active, helping in eradication efforts.

Zika has become an epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean since last fall. The virus is mainly spread through mosquito bites and has been linked to birth defects.


Warm ocean could mean early boom in 2016 lobster catch

ROCKPORT, Maine (AP) — Maine's lobster catches will likely peak early this year, which could mean an abundance of cheap lobster for consumers and bad news for the state's signature industry, a group of scientists reported on Thursday.

Maine's busy summer lobster fishing season typically picks up around early July, the same time the state's tourism industry gets in gear. But scientists with the Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute predict this year's lobster season will get rolling two or three weeks early. The scientists pinned the early season on warming ocean temperatures.


Investigations into energy magnate's death could take months

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — State officials say investigations into the death of energy magnate Aubrey McClendon in a car crash could take months to complete.

Oklahoma City Police Sgt. Ashley Peters says a probe likely will take up to two weeks, while the state medical examiner's office says an autopsy investigation could take as long as three months.

Police say McClendon's Chevrolet Tahoe slammed into a concrete embankment and burst into flames, killing the 56-year-old energy company CEO. McClendon had been indicted just hours earlier by a federal grand jury on charges of gas-lease bid rigging.


Gap reports 2 percent drop in revenue measure for February

NEW YORK (AP) — Gap Inc. is reporting a 2 percent drop in a key revenue measure for February, dragged down by weakness at its Banana Republic stores.

The results, announced late Thursday, were slightly worse than the 1.4 percent decline that analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters.

Gap said that by division its namesake brand saw revenue at stores opened at least a year improve from the prior months, with business unchanged compared to a year ago. Old Navy's metric was also unchanged. Banana Republic, which has been suffering from poor fit and quality issues, suffered an 11 percent drop in the metric.


The Dow Jones industrial average gained 44.58 points, or 0.3 percent, to 16,943.90. The Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up 6.95 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,993.40. Tech stocks lagged, and the Nasdaq composite index added 4 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,707.42.

U.S. crude fell 9 cents to $34.57 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the benchmark for international oils, added 14 cents to $37.07 a barrel in London. In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline lost 1 cent to $1.30 a gallon. Heating oil rose 1 cent to $1.12 a gallon. Natural gas, which is trading at 17-year lows, fell 4 cents to $1.64 a gallon.