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The Year That Software Bugs Ate The World

In 2017, bugs banned people from Twitter, secretly recorded them in their homes, and even caused a train crash. Is there anything they can’t do?

The Year That Software Bugs Ate The World
[Photo and illustration: AVIcons/iStock; Flickr user Tinh tế Photo]

In 2017, it was fashionable to stress over the prospect of machines getting so smart that they render humans obsolete or maybe even decide to kill us all.

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Look on the bright side, though: This also turned out to be a year that provided an inordinate number of reminders that what computers do is follow instructions given to them by people. And people have a tendency to write buggy software. When it fails, it can be startling, alarming, irritating, or darkly funny—or, sometimes, all of the above.

Herewith, some, um, highlights from the year in bugs, all of which involve defects that were fixed, sooner or later.

The Bugs That Made Gmail Disrespect Personal Boundaries

A nagging flaw in Google’s Play Services software for Android causes Gmail to demand access to “body sensors” before it will let users send email. The sensors in question relate to fitness apps, and Gmail doesn’t need access to them—which makes its request all the more creepy.

The Bug That Busted Wi-Fi

Belgian university researchers identify a vulnerability—dubbed “Krack”—which permits the circumvention of the encryption built into the pervasive Wi-Fi WPA2 standard. The reality of the matter may be less alarming than the theory, since online services tend to independently encrypt sensitive stuff, but a bevy of hardware and software makers must scramble to release updates.

The Bug That Equifax Probably Wishes It Had Patched

In September, credit-monitoring kingpin Equifax’s website is breached by someone who makes off with sensitive information on up to 143 million Americans. This epic act of cyber-mendacity was possible only because Equifax failed to install a fix for its Apache web servers, even though it was available for two months prior to the break-in.

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The Bug That Confirmed Everyone’s Fears About Smart Speakers

Android Police’s Artem Russakovskii—one of the members of the media who got an early unit of Google’s pint-sized Google Home Mini smart speaker—discovers that his Mini is recording audio 24/7 and storing it on Google’s servers. It turns out that a glitch with the speaker’s touch panel was to blame; Google reacts by simply disabling the option to talk to the Mini by pressing the touch panel. It eventually brings back some but not all of the features it deleted.

The Bug That Made Google’s New Phone Go Click, Click, Click, Click

Announced in October, Google’s new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL phones offered a bevy of attractive features. But once they reached consumers, it became clear that they were also bedeviled by quirks. One—the tendency to make a mysterious high-pitched sound variously described as a clicking or squeal—turned out to relate to the NFC chip.

The Bug From The Bill Clinton Era That Finally Got Fixed

Microsoft releases a patch for a Microsoft Office component called Equation Editor, originally released in November 2000. Security researchers had shown that the software had a vulnerability that could allow someone to seize control of your PC over the internet and run code on it—and that security features built into Windows and Office didn’t eliminate that danger.

The Bug That Made Twitter Look Homophobic

Twitter users notice that searching for terms such as #gay and #bisexual doesn’t find any results. The company apologizes, explaining that a bug relating to the algorithm it uses to flag adult content had mistakenly hidden all tweets relating to some terms regardless of the nature of their usage.

The Bug That Eliminated The Need For Those Pesky Passwords

First mentioned in an Apple support forum, a bug in Apple’s new High Sierra OS provides access to Macs with the user name “admin” and no password, permitting anyone who gets his or her hands on your computer to get at your files. Within a day of the problem gaining widespread notoriety, Apple rushes out an auto-installing patch and apologizes. And skeptics get to snark about whether the company’s historic reputation for robust security needs a rethink.

The Bug That Undid The Fix For The Pesky Bug That Eliminated The Need For Pesky Passwords

After patching up the bug that allowed anyone to log into a High Sierra Mac as an administrator, sans password, Apple releases another update that (briefly) brings back the bug.

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The Bug That Showed Your Friends You Were Running iOS 11

A problem with the autocorrect feature in Apple’s newest mobile operating system causes iPhones to substitute an A and a strange character whenever users type “I,” resulting in widespread typos on Facebook and Twitter. Some users resort to workarounds, while others seem blithely unaware that they’re disseminating gibberish.

The Bug That Could Let A Stranger Ransack Your Home

In October, Amazon announces Amazon Key, a smart lock that lets its delivery people—or employees of Amazon partners such as housecleaning and dog-walking services—enter your home. To make that idea less scary, their entry is recorded by the new Amazon Cloud Cam. But security researchers soon show how a bad guy with Amazon Key access could use a Wi-Fi vulnerability to freeze the Cloud Cam’s video feed, making it appear as if the door is closed when someone’s opening it. Amazon emphasizes that it’s an unlikely scenario, but releases a patch to alert users when their camera has been shut off.

The Bug That Could Snoop On Your Typing

HP releases a fix for a trackpad driver that includes code that can silently track keyboard input—a capability better known as “keylogging,” and notorious as a technique for spying on a computer user. The code—apparently used for testing purposes and left in by mistake—is disabled by default and a would-be voyeur couldn’t turn it on without having administration priveleges on your machine. But even if the risk of trouble is tiny, 500 different HP computer models that use the errant driver are impacted.

The Bug That Went All The Way To 11

Some users of Google’s Google Home Mini report that turning the pint-sized speaker up to maximum volume crashes it.

The Bug That Caused A Train Crash

In a Singapore train station during rush hour, one commuter train rear-ends another, resulting in 29 injuries. An investigation reveals that buggy signaling software left the train that did the rear-ending confused about how many cars the train in front had. And that led it to keep going when it should have come to a halt.

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The Bug That Barred You From Your Own Google Docs

On Halloween, users of Google’s G Suite report that the browser-based productivity package is randomly refusing to let them into documents they’ve created on the grounds that the content violates Google’s terms of service. The mishap, which appears to stem from an overzealous bit of machine-learning technology, is quickly resolved—but inspires a debate about the wisdom of relying on any third-party organization to grant you access to your own stuff.

The Bug That Let Anyone Nuke Your Facebook Photos

Security researcher Pouya Darabi discovers that Facebook’s new polling feature can be gamed to delete other photos on the social network—including private ones—via their unique identifiers. Facebook gives him $10,000 for bringing the vulnerability to its attention.

The Bug That Made Sure Pilots Were Home For The Holidays

American Airlines discloses that a malfunction in its vacation-scheduling software has allowed every pilot who wanted to take Christmas week off to do so—leaving the airline with too few pilots available to cover every trip during an exceptionally busy travel week. The problem threatens to impact 15,000 flights; American offers time-and-a-half pay to try to line up enough pilots for its planes.

The Bug That Made People Global Persona Non Gratae On Twitter

A handful of people find that they’ve been locked out of their Twitter accounts with a message declaring them to have been “withheld in: Worldwide.” At least one of them theorizes that she’s been booted for insulting J.K. Rowling. But Twitter says that the banning was accidental and blames it on a bug in the code it uses to hide tweets on a country-by-country basis in order to comply with local laws.

The Bug That You Could Foil By Pretending It Was Still December 1

An iOS 11 bug crops up that may crash your phone—but only as of 12:15 a.m. on December 2, and only in certain situations involving third-party apps using local notifications. Until Apple swats it, some folks resort to rolling back the calendar on their iPhones.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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