Let’s just say it: When compiling a record of the tech industry’s blunders this year, it’s tempting to zoom in on Facebook and leave it at that. The company had an annus horribilis so rich in scandal, embarrassment, and turmoil that it’s tough to keep track of them without a scorecard.
Still, limiting this list to any one company—even Facebook, even this year—would leave so many unfortunate incidents uncommemorated. From history-making data leaks to bizarre little moments, a bevy of players gave us even more reasons than usual to disabuse ourselves of the notion that technology is synonymous with progress. Herewith, a month-by-month account of what went wrong in 2018.
A sensitive exploration of a tragic situation. YouTube superstar Logan Paul blithely shares a jokey video of him stumbling across a dead body in a Japanese forest known for suicides. People take offense, he apologizes, and YouTube demonetizes his videos (but later brings some ads back).
Every product should be such a failure. A flurry of stories breathlessly report that Apple’s iPhone X has flopped so badly—perhaps because of its high price or notched screen—that the company plans to halt production. Later, when Apple shares sales figures, it turns out that the X is the world’s best-selling smartphone in the first quarter. And when the company announces three new iPhones in the fall, they’re all variants of the X.
Maybe they should have stuck to selling books. T-shirts, mugs, bibs, and other goods with the slogan “Slavery Gets Shit Done” and an image of pyramids are available on Amazon.com, where they’re offered by third-party merchants. Organizations such as Anti-Slavery International are not amused; Amazon refuses to comment, other than noting that the items have been yanked, and pointing to its policy on offensive products.
Hey, it’s not like that many people were watching. Hulu’s stream of Super Bowl LII cuts off during the final minutes of action for a small percentage of subscribers to the streaming service. The company later explains that its software was befuddled by the fact that the game went on past 10 p.m., when This Is Us was scheduled to begin.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. People report that Amazon’s Alexa is lapsing into jags of mysterious and creepy laughter. Amazon says the voice assistant is mistakenly thinking it heard the request “Alexa, laugh,” and changes the trigger phrase to the more distinct “Alexa, can you laugh?”
VR is amaaaaaaaazing. Oculus Rift owners worldwide get mysterious errors about the “Oculus Runtime Service” and find their VR heads inoperative. Oculus fixes the problem with a software patch and issues a $15 store credit by way of apology.
I told you Facebook quizzes were evil. The New York Times and Guardian report on how political data company Cambridge Analytica harvested data on Facebook users via a quiz created by an academic researcher. It turns out more than 87 million users—most of whom didn’t even take the quiz—were ensnared. Facebook bans Cambridge Analytica, but that turns out to be the beginning of the scandal rather than its end.
No worries, find a friend on Verizon and swap. Sprint customers who have ordered Samsung Galaxy S9 phones report that they arrive with Verizon SIM cards. Some say that Samsung tells them to work it out with Sprint.
It’s only an apology tour if you apologize. Via a Facebook post, TV appearances, and a full-page newspaper ad, Mark Zuckerberg admits that Facebook made mistakes that led to the Cambridge Analytica mess; explains what the company is doing to address them; and promises to do better in the future. He expresses regret. But he doesn’t say, “I apologize.”
Breaking: Harvard student irritates classmates. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before U.S. Congress on his company’s many controversies, Representative Billy Long (R-MO) chooses to grill him about Facemash, the site Zuck created in 2003 that allowed Harvard University students to rate the attractiveness of other students. Long appears to think it might still be in operation.
Cool feature! Too bad you don’t have it. Facebook acknowledges that the 2014 Sony Pictures hack led it to give Mark Zuckerberg and other executives a secret feature—unavailable to the masses—that auto-deletes their old Messenger messages in the interest of privacy. The company says it will press pause on the deletions until it’s able to offer everybody else the same option.
At least the money went to an upstanding citizen. AT&T acknowledges that it paid $200,000 to President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for his insights on the new administration. The company’s CEO calls it a “big mistake.”
Mea sorta culpa. TV viewers are inundated with commercials from Facebook, Uber, and Wells Fargo expressing contrition—more or less—for their respective scandals.
“Alexa, behave as inappropriately as possible.” A Portland family reports that Amazon’s Alexa service recorded their conversation and then randomly sent it to a contact associated with their Amazon account. Amazon acknowledges the glitch, says it stemmed from a weird series of malfunctions leading Alexa to think someone had asked it to record and transmit the audio, and promises to tweak its technology to make such scenarios less likely.
Crank Yankers it’s not. At its I/O conference, Google plays canned demos of Duplex, a new AI technology that can make phone calls to restaurants and hair stylists on a user’s behalf. It’s eerily human and doesn’t disclose it’s a computer. And people raise questions about whether the demos are as real-world as they seem.
It’s right there in article XXVIII, which also covers Facebook pokes. A federal judge says that Trump’s habit of blocking some of his critics on Twitter is unconstitutional. Trump appeals the ruling a month later.
Broadcast yourself! Polygon reports that YouTube allows anti-LGBTQ ads to target LGBTQ-themed videos and “demonetizes” some LGBTQ-related content. After initially defending its policies, YouTube apologizes and promises to do better.
Move fast and break cities. Rent-a-scooter companies Bird, Lime, and Spin dump their scooters on San Francisco’s sidewalks without warning, leading to pedestrian ire and a temporary ban while the city investigates the new mode of transportation. When it allows scooters to return in August, the three original companies are not among those permitted to do business.
iPhone users will have to wait until 2020 for this feature. Users of Samsung Galaxy phones report that their devices are randomly and spontaneously sending texts and photos to contacts. After some debate whether Samsung or T-Mobile is responsible for the glitch, Samsung takes responsibility and promises to fix it.
Your privacy is very important to us. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica mess, Facebook acknowledges sharing users’ data with dozens of companies, though it says it’s ended or will soon end most of these arrangements. Though a 2011 Federal Trade Commission degree restricted Facebook’s ability to provide data to third parties, the company maintains that the device makers it had deals with were “suppliers,” not third parties.
I was there, and the suspense was spine-tingling. Instagram holds a splashy San Francisco launch event for its new IGTV streaming service, but the proceedings unaccountably start an hour behind schedule. Fast Company’s Nicole Laporte later reports that the videos Instagram planned to present got accidentally deleted immediately before showtime, requiring the company to go back to backups and reformat them on the fly.
Happy Fourth of July! Facebook apologizes for having flagged part of the Declaration of Independence as hate speech.
If it involved anything other than selling burgers, this would be offensive. Washington, D.C. area hamburger joint Z-Burger tweets a meme disparaging McDonald’s and showing a photograph of James Foley, a journalist kidnapped and murdered by ISIS. The CEO of the chain’s ad agency tweets a three-part video apology and blames the incident on an overworked art director who thought the image of Foley was from a TV show.
— Michael Valor (@ValorCorp) July 23, 2018
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? After a reference to Colin Kaepernick is eliminated from a song in the soundtrack for Madden 19, EA apologizes. Rather than having anything to do with Kaepernick’s controversial decision to kneel during the National Anthem, the company says that employees mistakenly believed it didn’t have the right to reference him, even in a lyric.
So good you won’t believe it came from a phone. A Reddit user notices that an actress who appears in a commercial for a Huawei phone has posted an Instagram picture showing that an image in the ad that looks like a selfie taken with the phone—outstretched arm and all—was actually shot by a crew member with a DLSR.
The ultimate upselling opportunity. Firefighters battling Northern California’s devastating Mendocino Complex Fire discover that Verizon is throttling their connections on the grounds that they’ve exceeded their plans’ data cap. The wireless carrier initially tells them to spring for a plan with a more generous allotment but later apologizes.
Kindly keep your experiments to yourself. Users of devices running Google’s Android Pie operating system notice that battery saver mode has been mysteriously enabled, even if the device in question is fully charged. Google explains that the setting was remotely flipped on by an experiment gone awry. The company apologizes.
Damn you, Joker. A Q&A with T-Mobile CEO/Batman fan John Legere on his “Batphone” is disrupted when a prankster changes the voicemail recording to something described by people who heard it as “very bad” and “racist.”
Gotta love those naming rights. Six weeks after it opened, San Francsico’s $2.4 billion Salesforce Transit Center closes indefinitely when cracks are detected in two of its beams.
Goodbye, Burt. When Burt Reynolds dies on September 6, fans pay tribute by posting his famous 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold—and Facebook deletes the posts for violating its community standards. The company later calls the deletions of of the slightly naughty photo a mistake.
Hope you didn’t cancel any plans. A Taiwanese hacker says he’s discovered a Facebook bug that will allow him to delete Mark Zuckerberg’s account. He says he will stream the event on Facebook Live—but then backpedals and says he will instead submit the bug to the company for a bounty payment.
Hey, at least it had nothing to do with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook discloses that an unknown attacker gained access to information from 50 million user accounts, including those of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. (It later downgrades the figure to 30 million.) The company says that three distinct bugs interfaced to enable the hack, and that for 14 million users, the information stolen included “username, gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches.”
Moar notches. Google’s new Pixel 3 XL phone suffers from a bizarre software bug that sticks a virtual notch on its screen along with the all-too-real one.
Even fake disclosure is better than no disclosure. As part of its plan to prevent abuse of its platform for election tampering, Facebook requires those buying political ads to disclose who they are. Vice tests this policy by posing as all 100 U.S. senators and trying to purchase ads. Facebook approves all of them.
Shoulda given him options: Donald Duck, Alfred E. Neuman . . . The Wall Street Journal reports that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey’s support of Donald Trump was a factor in his exit from Facebook–which was a firing–and that Mark Zuckerberg had earlier tried to convince Luckey to publicly announce he would be voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Algorithms are terrible people. In the wake of vandalism at a Brooklyn synagogue, one of the slurs written on its walls—”Kill All Jews”—briefly appears in Twitter’s Trending Topics sidebar.
You know you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Google says that a bug may have left the personal data of up to 500,000 users of Google+ vulnerable to unauthorized access since 2015. (According to the Wall Street Journal, it was slow to disclose the breach for fear of rattling consumers.) The company responds by announcing plans to shutter the never-successful consumer version of Google+ by August 2019.
Bricked, but still beautiful. Some Apple Watch owners report that installing Apple’s WatchOS 5.1 on their timepieces causes them to become inoperable. The company withdraws the update until it can come up with a fix.
Charming young man, charming young fans. Disciples of controversial YouTuber PewDiePie—alarmed that a Bollywood music video channel may surpass his 66 million followers—take advantage of a vulnerability to print messages of support for their idol on the printers of thousands of random strangers.
As long as it eventually came back. After internet monitoring firms notice that Google traffic has been mysteriously traveling through China and Russia, a Nigerian ISP explains that a botched network upgrade rerouted traffic through its partner, China Telecom.
Set the TARDIS for one week from now. Doctor Who fans trying to watch the current episode on Amazon Prime find that the service is actually streaming the next show before it’s supposed to be available.
Super Stereotype Bros. Nintendo apologizes for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s depiction of Mr. Game & Watch, a character from the 1980s, wearing a feathered headdress and loincloth while brandishing a torch. It removes the imagery from the Japanese version of the game (the U.S. version never had it).
Loomering large. After being banned from Twitter, far-right activist Laura Loomer handcuffs herself to the company’s New York office, bullhorn in hand, and shouts at employees as they enter the building. She accuses CEO Jack Dorsey of persecuting her as a “Jewish conservative journalist.” And after two hours of protest, she asks the police to cut off her cuffs.
Even better than Huawei’s camera. A Serbian photographer finds that Samsung Malaysia’s site is misrepresenting a stock photo she took of herself with a DSLR as an example of the Galaxy A8 Star smartphone’s portrait mode.
The internet is a series of tubes. Trump lawyer/cybersecurity consultant Rudy Giuliani leaves a space out of a tweet, accidentally creating the URL “G-20.In.” A clever someone registers the domain and creates a page headlined “Donald Trump is a traitor to our country.” Giuliani accuses “cardcarrying anti-Trumpers” at Twitter of having permitted the prank, which anyone could have pulled off without any cooperation from the company whatsoever.
Twitter allowed someone to invade my text with a disgusting anti-President message. The same thing-period no space-occurred later and it didn’t happen. Don’t tell me they are not committed cardcarrying anti-Trumpers. Time Magazine also may fit that description. FAIRNESS PLEASE
— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) December 5, 2018
Cher and share alike. Kanye West, attending Broadway’s The Cher Show with wife Kim Kardashian, is politely called out by the actor playing Sonny Bono for using his smartphone during the performance.
the dynamics of Cher and Sonny’s relationship made Kim and I grab each other’s hand and sing “I got you babe”
please pardon my lack of etiquette. We have so much appreciation for the energy you guys put into making this master piece.
— ye (@kanyewest) December 4, 2018
A proud heritage of stealing someone else’s name. Samsung announced plans to partner with fashion brand Supreme in China—not the New York City-based Supreme, but an Italian knockoff. The collaboration generates the wrong kind of publicity, causing Samsung to reconsider.
Great high-paying jobs for American robots. Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn’s much-trumpeted deal to build a plant in Wisconsin involves a skyrocketing subsidy by taxpayers—up to $4.1 billion in breaks—and a facility of dwindling ambition which, thanks to automation, may not end up hiring that many assembly-line workers after all. Though Foxconn insists that it will eventually hire lots of people, Governor Scott Walker stops bragging about the project.
It would have been kinda cool if it had been real. A semi-incomprehensible statement of support for YouTube’s PewDiePie in his quest to remain the service’s most-followed channel briefly appears on the Wall Street Journal’s site.
They’re gonna change it back to Oath: by 2022. Verizon, which had tried to turn itself into a media company by acquiring AOL and Yahoo, takes a $4.6 billion write-down on the combined businesses. It then announces that it’s changing the group’s name from the memorably mystifying Oath to the anodyne Verizon Media Group.
finally, the tronc-sized hole in my heart has been filled https://t.co/mKNLkKfxMy
— BPLewis (@BPLewis) December 18, 2018
I can’t help you with your problems, sir. During Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on alleged bias by tech companies against conservatives, Congressman Steve King (R-IA)—famed for his racist tirades—asks Pichai why his granddaughter saw her grandpa’s photo and some insulting commentary about him on an iPhone. “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” replies Pichai.
One more bug and they’ll have to shut it down retroactively. Weeks after explaining that a Google+ data leak has prompted it to shut down the service in August 2019, Google acknowledges a different vulnerability affecting more than 52 million people, and says it will now terminate the consumer version of Google+ in April.
On the bright side, they’re no longer blocking sidewalks. San Francisco Bay Area TV station KTVU reports that Oakland’s lovely Lake Merritt is awash in electric scooters from companies such as Bird and Lime. (Whether those dumping them are indulging in pure wanton vandalism or making a social statement is unclear.) 60 scooters were dredged up in October alone.
This website brought to you by the color yellow. A Google training exercise gone awry causes third-party sites on the company’s network to display yellow rectangles instead of ads for 45 minutes. Google says it will pay the affected sites the money they would have gotten if they’d displayed, you know, advertising.
Note to self: Don’t forget to renew software certificates. Tens of millions of people in the U.K. and Japan find their phones can’t make calls, send or receive texts, or access the internet via cellular network. Wireless equipment manufacturer Ericsson accepts blame and says the outage stemmed from an expired software certificate. Unhappy wireless carriers want to be compensated for the outage, possibly to the tune of $126 million.
I guess staying at Holiday Inn Express really was a sign of intelligence. Lodging kingpin Marriott says that someone has accessed the data of 500 million customers of Starwood, the rival hotelier it acquired—including, in some cases, information such as their passport numbers. The New York Times reports that the breach was part of a Chinese intelligence operation.
Ironically, Snap was also considering the Potemkin Stock Exchange. The New York Post reports that when Snap CEO Evan Spiegel was mulling over which stock exchange to take his company public on in 2016, the New York Stock Exchange filled its trading floor with ringers from elsewhere in the company to impress Spiegel during a visit. When Snap IPOs, it indeed chooses the NYSE over Nasdaq.
Remember when it was Microsoft who had a rep for buggy software? Facebook acknowledges that a bug allowed apps access to up 6.8 million users’ photos without permission—including images that people had uploaded but not actually shared with anyone.
“Alexa, break your old record for inappropriate behavior.” A German Amazon customer who takes advantage of the European Union’s GDPR privacy laws reports receiving 1,700 Alexa audio recordings—of some other Amazon customer. They’re detailed enough to identify the second customer in question. Amazon apologizes and says that a human—not Alexa—goofed.