Year Review 2018: Big Tech’s Worst Scandals

Year Review 2018: Big Tech’s Worst Scandals

2018 was a year that exposed the complete ethical bankruptcy of big tech’s highest institutions. Over the last 12 months, Silicon Valley’s most powerful corporations embroiled themselves in scandals ranging from mass-scale data breaches, reactionary censorship, sexual misconduct, corruption, fraud, abuse, exploitation, surveillance, propaganda, the enabling of murderous political extremism and arcane malpractice lost in the media sea.

Before gazing into speculative crystal balls to discover our online tyrannical future, it’s important for us, the people to remember the milestones behind such pivotal consumer revolts. From the genocide in Myanmar to “subjective” enforcement against undefinable “hate speech”, 2018 was truly the time where the people’s most sovereign online platforms failed their protection of civil liberties at almost every turn imaginable. What follows is a thorough timeline of the industry’s utmost crucial failings over the course of the last year, sparing no platform complicit in the market of online despotism.

FEBRUARY: Uber’s Self-Driving Manslaughter Car

Last year, the concept of self-driving cars was more suited to the realm of science-fiction than a viable, reality of the road. This changed when Uber and Google’s self-driving car subsidiary, Waymo, were forced to go to court over speculation who legitimately owned the rights of their automated car technology.

As reported by Business Insider, the case started when Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who later transitioned to Uber, was sued for reportedly stealing trade secrets on the self-driving mechanics during his exit from the company. Uber was later forced to pay Waymo $245M in equity for the incident, though this wasn’t the end for their automation scandal.

Within the span of a few weeks, an Arizona resident was killed by Uber’s own self-driving car during an initial test run of the new technology on the road. The death immediately raised questions of whether such autonomous vehicles require strict regulation, oversight and mechanical assurances before their return into the public eye, forcing Uber to halt all forms of testing of previous models across Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, and Toronto.

As written by former TrigTent contributor Gabrielle-Seunagal, the incident “served as a poignant reminder of the persistent fears that are all too easy to conjure on the subject of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems…however, unlike the privacy concerns involved with products like Google Home and Alexa, this tragic incident is arguably one blight on a technology that has the potential to permanently minimize the number of all-to-frequent deaths involving vehicles as a result of human error.”

She later cites the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which found over 35,000 fatalities resulting from motor vehicle crashes in 2015 and 962 traffic fatalities just in the state of Arizona alone (over half of which being the cause of alcohol-impaired driving and speeding avoidable by automation). Through the stifling of such A.I. tests, talk about how one defectively bad apple — statistically a drop in the sea of human-caused deaths — corrupts the entire tree of potential industry innovations. Thanks, Uber.

MARCH: Google’s Cover-Up Of Millions of Dollars For Pentagon Drone Contract

Project Maven, the Pentagon’s highly classified drone program for artificial intelligence targeting, caused an entire civil war within Google’s rank. The scandal was exposed by Gizmodo through whistleblowers and internal documents revealing the multi-billion dollar search engine signed a secret government contract with Pentagon officials for use of their TensorFlow systems. You can read our full report here.

The controversial decision caused dozens of public resignations from the company and petitions from over 4,000 Google employees calling for a cease to the backroom deal. “With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings,” read a letter written by Lilly Irani, a former employee who now works as an assistant professor at the University of California. “These include so-called signature strikes and pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long-range surveillance footage.”

Google, desperate to save face, tried to frame their involvement in foreign policy as minimal after reported military documents (notoriously published as The Drone Papers) revealed over 90 percent of drone-linked fatalities in the Middle East are civilians, not Jihadists. Diane Greene, Google Cloud CEO, spoke with The New York Times to ease public speculations by stating Google’s involvement was for advanced drone spotting specifically used for “non-lethal purposes”, which she claimed came with the small price of $9M, dwarfed by Google’s overall profits. This isn’t the truth, however.

Leaked internal emails, obtained by journalist Lee Fang of The Intercept, show officials inside the Pentagon were set to subsidize the tech company to the tune of more than $250M per year, while the company already received over $15M for their work in July 2017. Among the emails was proof Google was indeed working on lethal-intended technology as their military fleet of around 1,100 drones would be used for improved spotting during their coordinated bombing strikes.

Aileen Black, a team member for Google’s rather Orwellian sounding “defense sales team” (DST), wrote an email explaining the Maven deal was a “5-month long race among AI heavyweights” in the tech industry with the “total deal $25-$30M, $15M to Google over the next 18 months. As the program grows,” she continued, “expect to spend is budgeted at $250M per year. This program is directly related to the September 13 memo about moving DOD aggressively to the cloud I sent last week.”

Within these emailed threads were Google DST executive Scott Frohman and Google Cloud scientist Dr. Fei-Fei Li who wrote “I don’t know what would happen if the media starts picking up a theme that Google is secretly building AI weapons or AI technologies to enable weapons for the defense industry. This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google. You probably heard Elon Musk and his comment about AI causing WW3.”

While the scandal was red meat for the press, both mainstream and independent, at least the red isn’t all over our innocent hands. The WW3 hyperbole aside, consumer concern was legitimate given the scale of such government-corporate ties to war, which was clearly acknowledged by Google’s executives after a revolt. It was later reported in Wired that Google will “eventually” terminate the contract in the foreseeable future, though failed to give an exact date at the time. You gotta hand it to Google — at least damage control is a better look than complicity in collateral damage.

MARCH: Facebook Reveals Data Breach Of 87 Million Users Via Cambridge Analytica

It was revealed through The Observer that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy firm with ties to President Donald Trump, was able to illegally obtain the personal data of an initially reported 50 million users. Following calls for transparency through the “#DeleteFacebook” movement, the tech monopoly revealed the number was actually 87 million across the globe.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” revealed whistleblower and data analytics expert Christopher Wylie. “[We] built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.” The firm, which officially closed its doors after the scandal, was able to create their own “psychographic profiles” to create personality profiles for likely voters, using deceptive Facebook apps to retrieve the data of users and their friends.

Once Cambridge Analytica was the talk of Capitol Hill, lawmakers, regulators, and users across the entire western world were demanding an end to such unaccountable big tech foolery. According to Vox, The Federal Trade Commission announced their decision to launch an investigation into whether Facebook’s handling of data violated a 2011 consent order which would require the company pay billions in damages.

By April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to testify before the Senate and the House of Representatives for a slew of questions regarding the breach, hate speech, disinformation and fake news allegedly caused by Russian operatives, user privacy, consent and potential monopolistic practices against their competition. Our full analysis of the hearings can be read here.

By September, Facebook disclosed that another totally unrelated hacked resulted in 29 million people having their private user data stolen by an unknown source, which media reports state included “highly sensitive personal information”, such birth dates, recent “checked-in” locations, phone numbers, search history, and more.

MARCH: Facebook Accused Of Enabling Hate Speech That Caused Myanmar Genocide

An organized coalition of human rights watchdog groups, which include the United Nations and other humanitarian groups, published reports blaming Facebook for their failure to effectively prevent the spread of “fake news” and “hate speech” their analysis found to enable violence towards Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority within the region.

Business Insider reports of an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who were forced to flee the country due to targeted harassment and violence by Myanmar’s governmental security forces who used murder, rape and arson to suppress their ethnic civilians. By November, the company agreed with this assessment when they published an independent report revealing the site could have lowered the chances of violence through proper enforcement.

“The report concludes that, prior to this year, we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence. We agree that we can and should do more,” wrote Facebook’s public policy manager Alex Warofka in a public statement. “We know we need to do more to ensure we are a force for good in Myanmar.”

Conducted by the Business for Social Responsibility organization, a non-profit committed to human rights protections, the report found the site was “being used to foment division” that ultimately “resulted in offline violence”. It’s believed the high user engagement from such hateful characters, which resulted in easy revenue for Facebook, persuaded the site to turn away from the issue at the time. The assessment concluded its year-long investigation by stating Facebook’s newly unspecified changes to their content policies would likely prevent such incitement events from repeating themselves in the future.

JULY: EU Lawsuit Fines Google $5 Billion Over Android Anti-Trust Violations

In July, enforcers for the European Union upped the ante in their fight with big tech through a stringent round of anti-trust fines against the search engine monopoly. It was reported by The Atlantic their crime was “denying rivals a chance to innovate” through the Android operating system (OS), used by over 80 percent of smartphones worldwide, due to a secret deal.

At the time, Google was expected to pay the largest fine in EU history with damages of €4.34 billion ($5.06 billion USD) for their “abuse of marketplace dominance” via corruption, ending the EU’s three-year investigation by with the assistance of their anti-trust watchdog group.

“Google has used Android as a vehicle to cement the dominance of its search engine. These practices have denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits,” said EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager in a statement. “They have denied European consumers the benefits of effective competition in the important mobile sphere.”

“Although Google said it would appeal the fine,” write journalists Paige Leskin and Nick Bastone, “the tech company has said it’s complying with the EU decision in the meantime. Google shared some of the changes it would make as a result, which includes charging phone makers who want to pre-install the bundle of Google apps.”

Translation in non-bureaucratic English: the EU commission found Google guilty of making illegal deals with phone makers where they’re forced to have Chrome apps and services pre-installed across all Android phones (a luxury not afforded to their competitors) or face complete disassociation with their monopoly brand.

Furthermore, Google even prevented these manufacturers from installing alternate builds of the Android OS despite this being an “open source” where, theoretically, the free market allows anyone to use it. When it conflicts with the greedy profits of Google, however, you can be damn sure they’ll leverage their power in any way they see fit.

AUGUST: Reveal Of Google’s Dragonfly, The Censored Search Engine For China

As if Google’s scandals couldn’t grow any worse, a whistleblowing report published by The Intercept revealed the tech monopoly was secretly working on a classified Android app codenamed “Dragonfly,” which was actually designed in secrecy as the Chinese Communist Party’s outsourced and strictly censored search engine for their repressed citizenry.

China’s requirements were for limiting of reach for “political dissidents” and their human rights, such as free speech, while censoring certain search results and enhancing ways for the government to track down problematic users.

“This is very problematic from a privacy point of view because it would allow far more detailed tracking and profiling of people’s behavior,” argued Cynthia Wong, the senior internet researcher with Human Rights Watch, who spoke with The Intercept months ago. “Linking searches to a phone number would make it much harder for people to avoid the kind of overreaching government surveillance that is pervasive in China.”

Citing internal documents verified by the publication, the development began around 2017, during the rise of the “fake news” meme, showing the site was already playing content gatekeeper for a foreign power through their “blacklisting of sensitive queries” and filtering out websites blocked by China’s web censors (which include Wikipedia, Facebook, BBC News, among others). The whistleblower also stated the censorship is moving towards Google’s image search, spell check and suggested searches, including simple terms like “student protest” and “Nobel Prize.”

In the vein of the aforementioned Project Mavin, tensions rose within the company itself as the development was being leaked to the press. An employee letter was being circulated around the company which declared: “We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table, and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building.” Writer Jack Poulson, the now-former senior research scientist at Google, resigned from his post along with five other employees in protest.

“There are serious worldwide repercussions to this,” Poulson later told journalists for The Intercept. “What are Google’s ethical red lines? We already wrote some down, but now we seem to be crossing those. I would really like to see statements about what Google’s commitments are.” After this fallout, a bipartisan group of House representatives asked Google to reveal their efforts to build a Chinese search app, their letter reading that Congress has “a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not perpetuating human rights abuses abroad.”

The company still has not confirmed the existence of the project.

AUGUST: The Wide-Spread Banning Of Infowars Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones

It’s no secret that Alex Jones, professional conspiracy theorist and creator of the independent fake news website InfoWars, is crazy. The major big tech platforms who banned all of his accounts within the span of 12 hours, however, maybe crazier for believing censorship without a commitment to freedom of speech and due process principles would go unnoticed.

It started with Apple removing all of Jones’ videos, podcasts, and posts without issuing an official reason as to why or offering an independent appeals process. Other social media sites followed suit with Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, YouTube, Vimeo, PayPal, Periscope, LinkedIn, and Pinterest all banning the man notorious for leading an army of internet crazies against their fictional treacherous plots about vampire pedophiles running liberal pizzerias.

There is no defense of Jones on his merits, of course, though the principle of due process, determining whether he truly committed an offence by their rules objectively, should be supported by everyone. Big tech doesn’t owe their contributing creators anything, but should at minimum enforce the right to a fair hearing and the freedom to express oneself, regardless of whether they would survive such an objective hearing in the first place.

October: Google+ Exposed Personal Data Of 500,000 Users And Covered It Up

During the height of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google tried to cover-up their exposure of private data for hundreds of thousands of their users, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and an internal source for The Washington Post.

The company kept quiet about a harmful “API bug” more than six months after their internal predictions found it could place their entire Google+ user network at risk. Their refusal to inform the public was reportedly out of fear the tech giant would likely face “regulatory scrutiny” and “reputational damages” for the breach. Ironically, Google’s transparency delay sparked a new round of regulatory and political scrutiny.

Instead of going down the road of ethical transparency, which would involve informing their Google+ users their social media network was an insecure mess between 2015 and 2018, terminating all access to the site and paying any due damages to their customers, the company chose only to inform their CEO Sundar Pichai and handled the matter on their own without any oversight or potential consequences.

Google estimated that over 500,000 accounts were at risk, though no evidence of this finite number was presented and no investigation into the scandal was underway. After the six month delay, a Google blog post announced their decision to finally discontinue Google+ for the average consumer in fear of a repeat scandal. This doesn’t, however, make up for the fact the highly sensitive information had been disclosed, which also included birth dates, recent “checked-in” locations, phone numbers, search history, etc.

October: Android Creator Andy Rubin Accused Of Sexual Assault, Given $90 Million Bonus

In October, The New York Times published an expose revealing Andy Rubin, often dubbed the “father of Android”, was forced to leave Google after repeated accusations of sexual assault from his lower female co-workers. Instead of completely severing connections with the man, however, Google continued to protect Rubin’s lavish income by offering a $90M exit package (paid in $2M monthly installments) over the course of around four years.

It was soon reported in TechCrunch that a group of more than 200 Google engineers successfully organized their global, company-wide “women’s walk” protest against the company’s protection of key executives accused of sexual misconduct, citing four sources familiar with the company’s internal decisions. The infamous Google Walkout resulted in over 20,000 company employees and political activists across the globe protesting Google. Protestors made signs to voice their frustrations, including the popular mantra at Google, “Don’t be evil.”

CEO Sundar Pichai published a memo promising to make forced arbitration, where sexual assault cases cannot be taken to court and can only be handled by the company, would be an “optional” process for employees to report their claims of sexual misconduct. In less than 24 hours, Facebook released similar announcements stating these practices, which studies show often lead to a biased result in favor of the corporation, no longer being a requirement. These tech giants follow the steps of Microsoft, Uber, Lyft, and BuzzFeed who also changed these same lawsuit restrictions earlier this year.

NOVEMBER: Amazon Reveals HQ2 Using $2.$ Billion Government Subsidises

Amazon, following weeks of speculation surrounding the placement of their HQ2 facility, decided to split its location between New York and Virginia while it’s paid for on the lavish dime of the United States taxpayers.

The mega-corporation announced their new employee hub (set to establish over 25,000 jobs within Queens and Crystal City) would receive over $2.4B in new government subsidies and investments, forcing people to question why corporate America’s most successful company is receiving a welfare check. The Intercept cites study documents which reveal the subsidies could actually cost the public over $4.6B,

Instead of administering these funds towards the social safety net or other fiscally responsible ventures, the government and Amazon decided to frame the big government support as an example of “national competition,” when in fact they’re playing monopoly through the removal of the profit incentive. The deals, which have since been made public, show their citizens will ultimately pay $48K per new Amazon job, at a time when the company is reporting record profit numbers and an increase in stock prices and buybacks which won’t be going towards the hub.

DECEMBER: #PatreonPurge Results In “Subjective” Censorship Of Political Creators

Finally, our year concludes with a new scandal surrounding Patreon, the newly controversial crowd-funding site which recently threw their hat into the big tech censorship racket by their banning of political commentators Sargon of Akkad and Milo Yiannopolous for dubious reasons.

While the site prides itself on allowing users to directly donate to independent artists and projects to “maintain full creative control” over their content while “making it easy for creators to get paid”, a leaked transcript with Patreon administrators published by Matt Christiansen reveals the site is using a “subjective” means of censoring its creators, as explicitly admitted by the site’s admin.

Whether it’s through retroactive or current reviews of a creator’s online history, naughty words, prior association with violent groups (even disavowed ones) and problematic encounters with other creators can have someone simply banned from the platform altogether without a formal, objective means of due process or commitment to speech liberties.

More developments are unfolding, but our full reports can be read both here and here. Stay tuned for more updates as the scandal continues.