Facebook, Amazon, and Apple had big years, but they also make our list of the biggest tech fails of 2018. Here’s what they (and others) did to earn a Silicon Valley facepalm.
This has been…a year. Honestly, if you’d asked me when the Snapchat redesign kerfuffle and that fake Hawaii missile alert had occurred, I’d have sworn they happened three years ago. But no, they were among the blessings bestowed upon us in 2018.
But those were not the only tech fails this year. Not by a long shot. As usual, security breaches made headlines quite regularly, from Orbitz and MyFitnessPal to T-Mobile and Marriott. (Password manager, anyone?) Malware hit routers, while ransomware hobbled cities such as Atlanta.
Below, we’ll chronicle some of Silicon Valley’s other notable facepalms. Read on for the stories that made us shake our heads and kept execs, shareholders, and PR teams up at night.
Meltdown and Spectre
Intel was one of several tech companies that had a rough year, but its troubles started just as 2018 got going with revelations that security flaws in chips powering PCs, laptops, servers, phones, and other devices had gone unnoticed for years. And fixes for those flaws would reportedly result in a performance hit to each system — as high as 30 percent.
The flaws, code-named Meltdown and Spectre, could be exploited to pull sensitive information from vulnerable machines. Meltdown was found mostly in Intel processors as far back as 1995, but Spectre was also found in AMD and ARM-based chips. Fix rollouts were complicated, but on the bright side, we tested four PCs from a variety of manufacturers and found that while each of the systems did suffer a slowdown in computing performance, it was slight enough that most users won’t notice the difference.
Hawaii Is (Not) Under Attack
In the early morning of Jan. 13, those in Hawaii got a shock when their phones lit up with an ominous emergency alert: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill,” it read. Except it was. According to an FCC report, a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HEMA) employee — who has since been fired — flaked and mistook a drill message (which started and ended with someone saying “exercise, exercise, exercise”) for the real thing, flipped the switch, and all hell broke loose. Heckuva job.
VPN Slip Reveals ‘Guccifer 2.0’ Identity
First rule of cyber espionage? Log into your VPN. In March, The Daily Beast reported that Guccifer 2.0, the hacker reportedly responsible for the 2016 Democratic National Committee hack, is an officer with Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. The hacker, who claimed to be a “lone” Romanian hacktivist, made a key mistake that revealed his actual identity: forgetting to activate his VPN client before logging on.
Members of Congress or Criminals?
As the photo above demonstrates, Congress has plenty of average-looking business types who many of us couldn’t pick out of a lineup. As it turns out, sophisticated facial-recognition technology from Amazon has no idea who is representing us in our nation’s capital either. This summer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tested Amazon’s controversial Rekognition system and found that it incorrectly matched the photos of 28 US lawmakers with mug shots of people who had been arrested for a crime. The ACLU’s test results were later replicated by Joshua A. Kroll, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who used the same database of mug shots.
‘Active Shooter’ Video Game
One might assume that making a video game called Active Shooter in which players assume the role of the attacker or a SWAT team member in various scenarios, including a school, would be in poor taste. But Acid and Revived Games, the publisher and developer of such a game, had no such qualms. They made the game and planned to publish it on Steam in June before public outcry from the parents of school shooting victims prompted Valve to pull it.
The incident kicked off a discussion about what type of content Valve would allow on Steam. Ultimately, it decided not to censor any games for controversial content, “except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” The developer of Active Shooter fell into the troll category because, Valve said, he has “a history of customer abuse, publishing copyrighted material, and user review manipulation.” The developer, Ata Berdyev, denied any wrongdoing.
The demise of Google+ is not super surprising. By Google’s own admission, “90 percent of Google+ user sessions are less than five seconds.” And the search giant has never hesitated to jettison products, even popular ones (RIP Google Reader). But Google’s social network met its maker this year after Google discovered a bug that left private user information open to developers. Okay, security breaches happen. The trouble is, Google discovered the bug in March but declined to alert users for fear of regulatory scrutiny, according to the Wall Street Journal. Oops. As a result, Google announced in October that it would shut down the consumer version of Google+ in August 2019 — a move that it pushed up to April 2019 after the discovery of another bug earlier this month.
Unwiped Servers Sold on Craigslist
When a company goes bankrupt, what happens to its customer data? In one case, it ended up for sale on Craigslist. That’s what a system analyst in Canada discovered in September. A shady Craigslist dealer was offering access to millions of customer records taken from unwiped servers used by the electronics retailer NCIX, which went bankrupt in 2017.
Jack Dorsey’s Myanmar Meditation Sessions
Earlier this year, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, did a “10-day silent vipassana meditation” for his birthday. A little pretentious, but whatever works for you. The problem? His meditation journey happened in Myanmar, where the military has been murdering the Rohingya people, and his tweetstorm about his “extremely painful and demanding physical and mental work” concluded with a call for meditation enthusiasts to visit the country.
After some pushback, Dorsey returned to the thread to say he was “aware of the human rights atrocities and suffering in Myanmar. I don’t view visiting, practicing, or talking with the people, as endorsement. I didn’t intend to diminish by not raising the issue, but could have acknowledged that I don’t know enough and need to learn more.”
The gaffe was all the more striking because social networks like Facebook have been accused of not doing enough to stop disinformation that has led to violence in the region — something Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was quizzed about during a September Senate hearing where Dorsey also appeared.
Facebook [Insert Scandal of the Moment]
Speaking of Facebook, 2018 is probably a year Mark Zuckerberg would like to forget. It’s hard to narrow it down, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal is probably the biggest fail out of Menlo Park this year. But that was just the beginning. Here’s a sampling of what likely gave the social network’s PR team a few eye twitches in 2018:
- Facebook Bug Changes Privacy Settings of 14M Users
- New Facebook Policy Sparks Fears of Sex Talk Crackdown
- Facebook Tries to Mop Up Mess Over Its Shady PR Tactics
- Bug Exposes Private Facebook Pics
- Facebook Let Amazon, Others Skirt Its Privacy Rules
Hey Siri, Define ‘Mother’
As some Reddit users learned in April, asking Siri to define the word “mother” yielded an inappropriate second response. “As a noun, it means ‘a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth’ do you want to hear the next one?” Siri responded. Those who said “yes” heard Apple’s digital assistant say: “As a noun, it means ‘short for motherfucker,’ want to hear one more?” Maybe later, Siri.
Alexa Sends Family’s Conversation to Contacts
In May, a family in Portland says, their Amazon Echo recorded a private conversation and sent it to a random person on their contact list. Amazon’s response? Alexa was confused; she thought she heard her name and the command to send the message. (Sure, Jan.) That came shortly after Alexa started laughing maniacally for no reason.
Huawei Fakes Camera Phone Photos in Ad
Don’t always believe what you see. An August commercial from Huawei tried to pass off DSLR-captured photos as images taken by a company smartphone. The commercial, which ran in Egypt, played up the selfie-taking capabilities of Huawei’s Nova 3 handset, including what the photos will supposedly look like. According to the ad, the images can look surprisingly vivid and sharp. But an observant user on Reddit posted that the photos promoted in the commercial were likely faked.
MacBook Butterfly Keys
Apple’s flat “butterfly” keyboards were so unpopular that customers sued over their shoddy design. By June, Apple offered free fixes for MacBook and MacBook Pro models with keyboards that unexpectedly repeat letters, fail to type them, feel “sticky,” or respond inconsistently.
MoviePass’s Roller Coaster Year
Ah, MoviePass. Going into 2018, the company was already facing trouble. But it kicked off 2018 with an outage and followed that up with multiple confusing price changes and movie restrictions. It’s now facing competition from the likes of Sinemia and AMC, which seem to have a better handle on their businesses — for now.
Elon Musk Booted From Tesla Board
Speaking of roller coasters, Elon Musk in September was ordered to pay a $20 million fine and step down as chairman of Tesla’s board to settle securities fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
At issue was an Aug. 7 tweet from Musk that said he was “considering taking Tesla private at $420” and asserted that he’d secured funding for the move. According to the SEC, however, “Musk knew that the potential transaction was uncertain and subject to numerous contingencies.”
The tweet caused Tesla’s stock price to jump by over 6 percent that day “and led to significant market disruption,” the agency said.
As part of the SEC settlement, Tesla must “put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications,” but Musk told 60 Minutes that no one’s approving his tweets.
Verizon Throttles Firefighters
While firefighters in Santa Clara, California, were responding to wildfires that spread across the state earlier this summer, Verizon Wireless was throttling the fire department’s data. Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden disclosed the throttling incidents as part of an ongoing lawsuit to restore net neutrality rules. Specifically, the brief lists an emergency response vehicle named OES 5262 that uses a Verizon SIM card for internet access and was unable to function effectively during the fire due to throttled data speeds. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Amazon Prime Day 404s
Amazon is now big enough to have a shopping holiday to rival Black Friday, but when its now-annual Prime Day deals went live this summer, someone apparently failed to give its servers a heads up. Eager shoppers were met with 404 pages for the first few hours. But those pages featured cute dogs, so who could be mad?
Everyone Hates Snapchat’s Redesign
Following the US debut of Snapchat’s redesign in early February, users launched more than 30 Change.org protest petitions in a single day. They complained that the app was “too over complicated,” that it was harder to find their friends, and that some contacts weren’t even showing up. By May, Snap released some changes that put Snaps and Chats in chronological order again and moved Stories from your friends back to the right side of the app.
Lime Scooters: Too Hot to Handle
Scooters were all the rage this year; Lyft, Uber, and even Ford got in on the action. But a few Lime scooters were a bit too hot — Lime had to remotely kill them to prevent them from catching on fire. The fault affected around 2,000 of Lime’s scooters, which were spread across Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe.
Amazon Workers Hit With Bear Repellent Spray
Happy holidays! Earlier this month, one of Amazon’s many automated robots managed to puncture a 9-ounce can of bear repellent spray in a New Jersey warehouse. In doing so, a concentrated form of Capsaicin, an active component of chili peppers and a very effective irritant for bears and humans, was released into the air, and nearby workers were exposed to it. Thirty workers were treated at the scene, and 24 needed to go to the hospital. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
CenturyLink 911 Fail
Internet service provider CenturyLink ended the year with a few PR headaches. First, it was accused of blocking people’s internet access in Utah unless they clicked through ads for the company’s parental control software. Then, the FCC opened an investigation into a nationwide outage that disrupted 911 services in some areas around the country.
Drones Shut Down Gatwick Airport
Traveling during the holidays can be a nightmare, particularly if there’s a ground stop at your airport due to drones. Just before Christmas, England’s Gatwick Airport was shut down after reports of drones near the runway; approximately 1,000 flights were canceled between Dec. 19 and 21. There was some brief confusion after a Sussex police officer suggested there were never any drones, according to the BBC, but that appears not to have been accurate. Anti-drone equipment has since been installed at the airport. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Instagram’s Horizontal Scroll
Facebook last week briefly rolled out an Instagram update for some people that made the main feed scroll horizontally instead of vertically. According to new Instagram Head Adam Mosseri, it “was supposed to be a very small test that went broad by accident.” Pour one out for the employee who flipped the switch on that rollout. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Not every idea is a winner. And not every winning idea will last forever. Let us reflect on the tech we lost in 2018.
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.