The Tech Stories That Shocked, Vexed, and Amazed Us in 2017
By Chloe Albanesius, PCMag, 22 December 2017.
By Chloe Albanesius, PCMag, 22 December 2017.
Another year has come and gone. We got new iPhones, a Galaxy Note that didn't explode, and an Amazon Echo for every room.
Bitcoin soared while Snapchat stumbled. It was lights out for AOL Instant Messenger but hello to Apple Pay Cash, Hulu With Live TV, and Alexa on just about any gadget you could find.
But which stories truly captured our imagination and set Twitter ablaze? Read on for the top tech news stories from 2017 in no particular order. (And for a look back, check out the list from 2016.)
1. Equifax Hack
In September, credit monitoring company Equifax revealed a "cybersecurity incident potentially impacting approximately 143 million US consumers." Credit card numbers for about 209,000 US consumers, and certain dispute documents with personal identifying information for 182,000 US consumers were accessed. Hackers also got their hands on names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and some driver's license numbers.
Equifax was slammed for its response to the breach, from waiting too long to notify customers to asking them to enter their Social Security numbers into a website to see if they'd been affected. The situation was all the more frustrating because consumers do not have a way of opting out of having their data collected by a company like Equifax. As PCMag's Sascha Segan argued at the time, the whole point of Equifax was to protect consumers; it failed miserably and needs to go. At this point, however, we've only seen the resignation of Equifax's CEO.
WannaCry is a serious strain of ransomware that hit Windows PCs worldwide in March. Those who were infected found their computers locked, with hackers demanding a US$300 ransom to unlock the device and its files. When all was said and done, at least 300,000 devices were affected globally, though it could've been a lot worse. Quite by accident, a UK researcher known as MalwareTech managed to hobble the spread of WannaCry. Earlier this month, the US placed the blame for WannaCry on North Korea.
3. FCC Kills Net Neutrality Rules
The GOP-led FCC ended its year by killing off net neutrality rules put in place under President Obama. A divided commission voted 3 to 2 to get rid of rules that allowed the FCC to step in if an ISP was accused of shady practices on the web, like paid prioritization and discriminating against specific internet applications.
The rules, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, solved a problem that did not exist. "The internet wasn't broken in 2015," he said. "The internet…is perhaps the only thing in American society that we can all agree has been a stunning success."
Pai's Democratic colleagues had strong words for their fellow commissioners. Mignon Clyburn said she was "outraged" by the vote, and accused the FCC of "abdicating responsibility to protect the nation's broadband consumers."
For more, check out Does the End of Net Neutrality Mean I Need a VPN?
4. Bitcoin Explosion
Did you buy a bitcoin or two a few years ago? Congratulations, it's now worth upwards of US$15,000 per bitcoin. That's great for people who own Bitcoin (if they can actually cash out), but it also makes cryptocurrency an attractive target for hackers and scammers.
This month, hackers robbed Bitcoin mining site NiceHash of a reported US$70 million, prompting NiceHash to shut down operations for 24 hours. Others are surreptitiously stealing computer resources to mine cryptocurrency, many using Coinhive, which emerged in September as a novel way for websites to generate revenue. That may sound great, but the Coinhive code often doesn't tell website visitors that any mining is taking place. This year, for example, we saw the websites of Showtime and fact-checking site PolitiFact unknowingly rigged to mine cryptocurrency.
If you're curious, check out How to Buy, Sell, and Keep Track of Bitcoin.
5. Sexual Harassment in Silicon Valley Revealed
Time Magazine's Person(s) of the Year for 2017 are The Silence Breakers, or those who have come forward with stories of harassment. In Silicon Valley, the issue made headlines in February with a blog post from former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, who described an incident in which her manager solicited sex over company chat. She complained, but was told to either switch teams or remain on the team and risk a poor performance review from the offending manager. She switched teams, and did well, but in talking to other female employees, she found that "some of them had stories similar to my own." Fowler later left Uber, and penned her blog post, which ultimately led to the resignation of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
Uber was not the only tech firm mired by scandal this year, though. In June, the New York Times published a story in which several women in tech named the men in Silicon Valley who they said acted inappropriately, prompting the resignation of VC Dave McClure from 500 Startups.
6. Cassini Crashes Into Saturn
Just a month shy of its 20th birthday, NASA's Cassini celebrated in September by purposefully plunging to its death inside Saturn's atmosphere. Why? After 13 years in orbit, Cassini ran low on fuel, which meant that scientists would lose the ability to navigate the vessel.
Chances are that, if simply left to the laws of physics, Cassini would circle aimlessly around Saturn and never again interact with any major celestial body. However, thanks to Cassini's insights, scientists can confirm that at least two of Saturn's moons - Enceladus and Titan - contain habitable (or at least "prebiotic") environments. While far from confirmed, there is a chance that these two moons could support some form of primordial life.
Without the ability to control Cassini, there remained a (minute, but definite) chance that the spacecraft might smack into these moons and possibly contaminate these bodies with some hardy Earth stowaways. To be on the safe side, researchers opted for a suicide mission. - Evan Dashevsky
For more, check out Breathtaking Pics From Cassini's Journey to Saturn.
7. Hurricane Maria Slams Puerto Rico Networks
In September, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, knocking out power and 95 percent of cell sites. As of Dec. 8, 23.1 percent of cell sites were still down, with 11 out of 78 counties with more than 50 percent of their cell sites out of service (22.2 percent of cell sites on the US Virgin Islands are also still down). In mid-October, we used our sister company Ookla's Speedtest Intelligence database to get a picture (above) of how cell sites were coming back online - and dropping off again, in some cases. Complicating matters is the fact that power has still not been restored to the island, and might not be until May.
8. 5G Gets Real
At MWC 2014, "everyone was talking about 5G, but there was absolutely no consensus about what exactly 5G is, let alone how it would work," PCMag's Sascha Segan wrote at the time. Three years later, 5G is no longer pie in the sky. Though some carriers are using crafty language to roll out "5G" service that is not quite 5G, the technology is clearly making gains.
In September, for example, Intel announced a test platform that will support the core radio technology for 5G. A month later, Qualcomm showed off a 5G reference phone; it also discussed 5G smartphones earlier this month at its Snapdragon Summit, which it said will not have the horrid battery life we saw with early 4G phones.
In November, meanwhile, Segan visited Verizon's New Jersey headquarters, where the company discussed its 5G-based home internet service, which rolls out next year in Sacramento.
More recently, the first 5G specs were approved by the 3GPP, a group that oversee cellular standards. Look for the full 5G rollout by 2019.
9. Supreme Court Hears Phone Location Case
In June, the Supreme Court agreed to hear its first cell phone location data case. At issue is whether police need a warrant based on probable cause before accessing cell phone location records from wireless carriers.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is serving as co-counsel, argues that without a warrant, law enforcement is infringing on a defendant's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The organization is representing Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of robbery in Detroit, based in part on months' worth of phone location records the government obtained in 2011 without a probable cause warrant.
Ahead of oral arguments, a group of tech giants - including Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Verizon - filed a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the Fourth Amendment "must adapt to the changing realities of the digital era."
Arguments were heard on Nov. 29, and according to the New York Times, "a majority of the justices seemed troubled by the government’s ability to acquire troves of digital data without a warrant." We'll have to wait a bit for the court's final decision, but in the meantime, you can listen to the oral arguments here.
10. Instagram Continues to Rip Off Snapchat
Instagram was rife with innovation in 2017. Just kidding, it totally ripped off Snapchat all year. After stealing the idea for Stories, right down to the name, in mid-2016, Instagram also cribbed one of Snapchat's most well-known features: face filters. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Instagram VP of Product Kevin Weil all but admitted that it stole Snapchat's best ideas. "If we're being honest with ourselves, this is the way the tech industry and frankly all industries work. Good ideas start out in one place and spread all across the industry," said Weil. "Kudos to Snapchat for being the first to stories, but it's a format and it's going to be adopted across a wide array of platforms." Perhaps Snapchat should've taken Facebook up on its US$3 billion offer back in the day.
11. Apple iPhone X
The iPhone turned 10 this year, so Apple released an anniversary iPhone X, which ditches the home button and incorporates Face ID facial recognition, among other things. It also costs a pretty penny, starting at US$1,000. In PCMag's review, we found that it "sets the stage for Apple's next decade, with a sharp new design and a future focus on augmented reality," earning it a spot on our list of the Best Products of 2017.
12. Nintendo Switch
The Wii U didn't exactly set the world on fire, so Nintendo had its fingers crossed that its tiny Switch would be a hit. As the year draws to a close, the company can exhale; earlier this month, sales topped 10 million units. In PCMag's review, we found that the Switch succeeds as both a home game system and a gaming handheld, offering a new flexibility in how you play. If it's on your holiday wish list, be sure to check out 10 Games Every Nintendo Switch Player Needs.
13. Kaspersky vs. the US
Security firm Kaspersky Lab spent the second half of 2017 denying that it has "inappropriate ties" with the Russian government after Bloomberg in July, citing internal Kaspersky Lab emails, reported that the security vendor "has maintained a much closer working relationship with Russia's main intelligence agency, the FSB, than it has publicly admitted."
Russian spies reportedly used Kaspersky's antivirus software in 2015 to steal classified files from the U.S. National Security Agency. In October, Kaspersky tried to clear the air, and said its antivirus software did indeed download the secret hacking files, but only because they were flagged as malware after an NSA contractor's home computer was reportedly infected.
Still, the reports prompted Best Buy to remove Kaspersky software from its shelves, while the Department of Homeland Security banned its software on US federal government computers. Kaspersky then sued DHS, arguing that it has "harmed Kaspersky Lab's reputation and its commercial operations without any evidence of wrongdoing by the company."
14. Silicon Valley Meets President Trump
With the exception of Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley largely shunned Donald Trump during the presidential campaign; in June 2016, more than 150 execs said he'd "be a disaster for innovation." So when Trump took office, the tech industry did a somewhat awkward dance with the new president, gambling that it was perhaps better for business to be in his good graces.
CEOs like Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, and Jeff Bezos sat down with Trump for two tech summits this year, but didn't look too happy about it. Throughout the year, they and others have been vocal in their opposition to certain Trump policies, including the travel ban, DACA, and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick went one step further and joined Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum, which was intended to advise the president on job creation. Kalanick dropped out in February to quell rumors that he supports the Trump administration's agenda, while Musk quit in the wake of the Paris Climate decision. The whole group later disbanned in the wake of Trump's comments about Charlottesville.
15. Trump and Twitter
If those CEOs were wondering how Trump really felt, they needed only glimpse at his Twitter feed. In August, for example, Trump took aim at Bezos, arguing that Amazon does "great damage" to retailers, and that Bezos uses the Washington Post as "a big tax shelter" for Amazon.
No topic was off limits for Trump on Twitter, where he railed against world leaders and TV stars alike. He used the service to announce major policy shifts, attack political rivals and the press, tout his accomplishments, and tackle the truly pressing issues of the day.
Things reached a fever pitch last month, though, when Trump re-tweeted three anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British group, amplifying an organization that had otherwise operated on the fringe of UK politics. Twitter then faced a barrage of criticism for not removing the videos and later flip-flopping on why it allowed them to remain.
Trump's Twitter did actually disappear from the web for an 11-minute period in early November. Twitter blamed a rogue employee on his last day; that employee later said the deletion was a mistake.
16. Twitter Jumps to 280-Character Limit
The point of Twitter is communicating in short bursts. The company initially limited posts to 140 characters to facilitate tweets sent over SMS, and that's how it remained for more than a decade. But despite Jack Dorsey insisting last year that "it's staying" when asked about the 140-character limit, Twitter this year bumped that limit to 280 characters.
Twitter pointed to languages that allow people to express themselves in fewer characters. With "languages like Japanese, Korean, and Chinese you can convey about double the amount of information in one character as you can in many other languages, like English, Spanish, Portuguese, or French," it said. As a result, English speakers sometimes removed words or opted not to tweet at all, Twitter said. For a company that has struggled with growth, developing a more engaged community is a must, and after a brief trial period, Twitter announced that 280 was here to stay.
17. Oh, Twitter
Throughout the year, though, Twitter has struggled to articulate what it considers to be harassment or a violation of its terms, as evidenced by its reaction to Trump's re-tweets (above) and 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.