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The Biggest Tech Fails of 2017

This year’s fails have been all about an assaults on you, your opinions, and your personal data.

By Matthew Humphries

Every year we inevitably see some big failures in the world of tech, and 2017 is no different. This year there definitely seems to be a common theme: security. If your personal information hasn’t been compromised online this year, you’re in the minority in the US.

2017 will also be remembered for ransomware becoming a profitable business, your phone potentially spying on you, and even trusted security utilities no longer being secure.

Avoiding all these security failings was difficult and in many cases out of your control, but you couldn’t fail to notice an increase in online harassment and fake news appearing on the major social networks. At the same time, accessing information got easier thanks to the popularity of smart speakers—but if you think they are always right, think again (or ask John Travolta).

Equifax Puts Most Americans at Risk

Equifax became a dirty word this year due to what is being touted as the worst handling of a data breach, ever. The consumer credit reporting company got hacked, which resulted in more than half of all adult Americans having their data compromised. Over 143 million people were affected, with the data stolen including full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers.

It gets worse, though. Another data breach happened five months before the major hack and it is thought to have been carried out by the same hackers. There was also the pesky question of why some Equifax execs had time to sell stock before revealing the breach. Equifax also required people to enter personal information into a sketchy website to check if their information had been compromised — a move that saw consumers unknowingly waive their right to sue Equifax.

So there was little surprise when Equifax CEO Richard Smith stepped down. It was framed as a retirement, but no CEO could ever survive such a comedy of errors, sinister behavior, and complete failure of security.


Malware Hits PC Cleanup Tool CCleaner

CCleaner is a utility program millions of Windows users rely on to clear potentially unwanted files off their PCs. It’s a trusted application—or at least it was until security researchers at Cisco Talos discovered CCleaner v5.33 included malware.

Developer Piriform confirmed that the malware was present and collected system information — including lists of installed software and Windows updates, MAC addresses of network adapters, PC names and information from the Windows registry key; all of which was sent to a remote server.

The utility installer was patched to remove the malware, but only after over 700,000 machines were infected. Further investigation found the malware was targeting high-profile tech firms in a bid to steal valuable intellectual property and trade secrets. In particular, Cisco, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, HTC, Linksys, and VMware were the focus.

Pirifom stated at the time that a full investigation was underway, but we have yet to hear its outcome. At the time the attack was discovered, Cisco Talos suggested it was either someone with inside access or CCleaner’s build environment had been compromised.


Russia’s Election-Year Ad Buys

This was the year we learned the extent to which Russia used our social media platforms to spread fake news and attempt to influence voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. But it wasn’t just rogue accounts spreading misinformation; the platforms themselves allowed it via their ad networks.

In March, Facebook revealed that an estimated 10 million people in the US saw political ads purchased by Russia-linked accounts during last year’s presidential campaign. The ads focused on “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum” ranging in topic from “LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

In November, Mark Zuckerberg said he was “upset…that the Russians tried to use our tools to sow mistrust.” He pledged to “invest so much in security” that the costs will cut into the company’s profitability. To start, Facebook is building a tool to show users which Russian pages and accounts they interacted with on the social network.

Twitter, meanwhile, told Congress that Russia’s state-run TV network Russia Today (RT) spent $274,100 on ads in the US last year, mostly placed by three RT accounts: @RT_com, @RT_America, and @ActualidadRT. A month later, Twitter banned ads from RT and Sputnik International based on US intelligence findings combined with its own internal investigation.


Why, Zuck, Why?

While Facebook was dealing with controversies in 2017, its founder had his share of public gaffes as well.

In January, Mark Zuckerberg sued hundreds of people on the Hawaiian island of Kauai who had inherited the rights to portions of land he now owns. He was trying to force them to sell that land, which had been passed down through generations. As you can imagine, this did not result in great press for the Facebook CEO and he quickly dropped the lawsuits.

Jump forward to October; Zuckerberg apologized for promoting virtual reality using the hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico as a backdrop.

The VR tour saw his avatar visit flooded areas of the island. It was meant to demonstrate VR as a way of raising awareness, but some viewed it as exploiting a disaster to promote Facebook/Oculus technology and products. In response to the negative feedback Zuckerberg said, “My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”


Get it Together, Twitter!

Twitter continued to stumble in its bid to address abuse and harassment in 2017, as evidenced by its back and forth over the status of white supremacists on the service. In November, it put the brakes on verifying accounts following widespread backlash over its decision to give Jason Kessler, the organizer of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a blue check mark. It later announced new guidelines whereby Twitter will remove a verified badge if an account is found promoting hate or inciting harassment against others.

Throughout the year, however, Twitter has struggled to articulate what it considers to be harassment or a violation of its terms. This was on full display when the company tried to explain why it had not deleted the misleading anti-Muslim videos tweeted by President Trump, but “mistakenly pointed to the wrong reason,” according to CEO Jack Dorsey. Twitter first said the videos remained online because they were “newsworthy or for public interest,” but later said they were “permitted on Twitter based on our current media policy.”


Uber Covers Up Data Breach for a Year

In November of 2016, Uber suffered a major data breach that affected 57 million users. If you don’t remember it being reported at the time, there’s a very good reason: Uber decided to keep it quiet. In fact, the public didn’t know about the breach until Nov. 2017 when Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, found out about it and made it public.

It turns out Uber paid a $100,000 ransom after the hackers promised to delete the stolen data; the two employees who handled the breach response were eventually fired. But the cover-up did not go unnoticed and left both US senators and government regulators demanding answers. New legislation was also introduced for a nationwide breach notification law, with data breach concealment carrying a five-year prison term.


YouTube’s Advertiser Exodus

In March, British advertisers pulled their ads from YouTube after discovering that some appeared with videos containing extremist, homophobic, or racist content. Google responded with a thorough review of its “ads policies and brand controls.”

But last month, YouTube was doing damage control after advertisers started leaving due to their ads appearing alongside pedophilic and exploitative child content. YouTube ended up closing down over 270 accounts, removing over 150,000 disturbing videos of children, and disabling the comments on over 625,000 videos. Somehow, auto-complete had also started returning “s*x with kids” on search results for “how to have.”

After those two high-profile incidents, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when earlier this month YouTube announced it was boosting its policy enforcement teams to more than 10,000 people in 2018. Many will be required to remove policy-violating content from YouTube while also training the company’s machine learning systems to identify similar videos in the future.


Ransomware Explosion

When your PC gets infected with ransomware, emotions run high: All your files are locked, the message on the screen demands payment, and there’s a timer showing exactly when all that valuable data you don’t want to lose will be deleted permanently.

So it probably won’t come as a surprise that a lot of people decide to pay, which accounts for why ransomware became a multimillion-dollar black market this year. The top performer, called Locky, makes over $1 million a month, while others managed hundreds of thousands. Business is booming.

The advice given by security experts is never to pay, but it’s clear that many do not heed that advice. A better solution is to protect yourself before it happens, so you are never faced with such a decision.


Faraday…Has No Future?

If you want a fully electric car, Tesla is probably what first comes to mind. But another exciting all-electric car company called Faraday Future has an awesome alternative…if it’s ever released.

The Autonomous FF91 electric car was unveiled at CES 2017, but before January was over, Faraday having trouble paying its bills despite having Chinese investors with deep pockets.

Right now, it’s unclear what comes next. You can still reserve a Faraday vehicle and the company continues to talk about production, but will we ever see a mass-market launch and Faraday Future as a true rival for Tesla? Maybe we’ll get the answer to that question in 2018.


LeEco Fizzles Out

Remember LeEco? The Chinese tech conglomerate appeared in the US selling TVs and smartphones in 2016, but less than a year later the American ride seems to be all but over. In late May, the company started laying off hundreds of employees, with around 50 remaining mostly in customer support roles. The company’s future was apparently with “Chinese-speaking households in the US.” We’ll see how that pans out.

Maybe we should have seen this coming based on what happened in April, when the company’s $2 billion Vizio acquisition went kaput due to “regulatory headwinds.” That followed LeEco Chairman and CEO YT Jia stating the acquisition was “an important step in our globalization strategy and building our North American presence.” Now we have to wonder if it was regulation that forced the backout, or was it simply the first sign of an exit from the US?


Voice Assistants Still Need Work

A growing number of people rely on intelligent personal assistants to answer their questions and provide reliable information. But these services are far from perfect, and Siri and Google Home proved as much this year.

Back in March, Google Home responded to a question of why fire trucks are red with a Monty Python joke involving measurements, ships, and Queen Elizabeth. Worse than that, though, is the fact Google Home thought Obama wanted to declare martial law when asked if he was planning a coup.

Siri waited until December to screw up. When anyone in the UK, Poland, or Australia asked Siri how old actor John Travolta is, Siri informed them that “John Travolta died 3 January 2009 at age 54.” The actor was not dead; Siri was confused due to news reports concerning the death of Travolta’s son.

We wait to see what gems Google Home and Siri have for us in 2018. Maybe Alexa will make its bid for most ridiculous answer.


Essential Phone Essentially Over?

A phone designed by Android co-founder Andy Rubin with flagship specs and a great price should have been great, but you need more than VC funds for smartphone success.

The Essential Phone PH-1 combined top-notch hardware and pure Android software, but since launch, it’s been a series of unfortunate events for the company. First, an email sent to customers who pre-ordered the handset ended up sharing the personal details of 70 people. Rubin claimed personal responsibility for the error and said it was “humiliating.”

By October, the handset received a $200 price cut with early adopters getting the cash back as a $200 credit for use on the Essential store. However, just as November was ending, Rubin took a temporary leave of absence after reports emerged of an inappropriate relationship during his time at Google. He’s back, but we’ll have to see if Essential can recover in 2018.


A Side of Spyware With Your Midrange Phone?

Blu is another Android phone maker that had a tough go of it this year. First, Amazon pulled Blu’s low-cost Android smartphones in August over spyware concerns. Kryptowire discovered Shanghai Adups Technology on the Blu Advance 5.0 handset, which was thought to be quietly sending information to a server in Shanghai. Blu denied any wrongdoing, and three days later, Blu phones were back on Amazon with Blu calling it a “false alarm.”

In November, though, the company released an update that bricked the Blu Life One X2 smartphone. A factory reset fixed the problem, but that also wiped all the phone’s data. It took almost a week, but Blu issued a software fix that involved downloading another update to an SD card and installing it on the phone. However, this new update left some owners with corrupted data.


‘i’ Think iOS 11.1 Needed More Testing

Operating system updates are extremely important, as they (usually) result in a more secure and reliable device by fixing bugs and closing security holes. Not so for iOS 11.1.

Anyone who installed it discovered they could no longer type the letter “i.” If they tried, the keyboard suggested different characters such as “A,” “#” or “!,”followed by the “the Unicode character for ‘Hey I can’t read this’” — a box with a question mark. It took three days, but Apple did eventually release a patch to fix the glitch, which was traced back to an autocorrect problem.


Apple HomePod Delayed

Smart speakers were all the rage this year, with Amazon dominating through its range of Alexa-powered Echo speakers and Google offering an alternative in the from of the Google Home, Home Mini, and Home Max. Apple introduced its version, the HomePod, at WWDC and said it would launch by year’s end. But the HomePod never appeared. Apple eventually admitted “we need a little more time before it’s ready” and pushed the launch back to early 2018. Considering the HomePod will cost $349, at least it offers more time to save up for one.


Google Docs Randomly Locks Files

Google Docs has grown in popularity because of how simple it makes accessing a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool on the web. It just works, or at least it does until a bug gets into Google’s system.

That’s what happened at the end of October when Google Docs and Drive users found many of their files were flagged as violating Google’s terms of services. The offending files were automatically locked, disrupting work for everyone affected. Three days later, Google Product Management Director Mark Risher apologized and pointed to a bug introduced to the Google Docs and Drive automated security systems. Both services started misinterpreting responses from the security system and flagged innocent files as TOS violators.

The bug was fixed, but it reminds us how fully automated systems are not always a great idea.


GameStop PowerPass Paused

In the run-up to the holidays, GameStop decided it needed to offer something new and came up with a subscription service called PowerPass. The concept was simple: ask gamers to pay $60 and in return they can check out one pre-owned game at a time, but swap for another title as often as they wanted during a six-month period. A few days before the Nov. 19 launch day, though, GameStop “temporarily paused” the rollout after some gamers purchased the service early. No reason was given for the pause beyond “a few program limitations.”


For more, check out our roundup of The Best Memes, The Tech That Died This Year, and the Tech That Will (Probably) Die in 2018.


Originally published at www.pcmag.com.

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