The biggest technological blunders of 2021

For many, 2021 was a year of mixed emotions, as covid vaccines became more widely available but the pandemic continued for another year. And, while technology kept us entertained and connected throughout the pandemic, it also made life more difficult.

There were moments this year when technology malfunctioned or completely failed to function — from massive internet outages and crippling ransomware attacks to a series of issues with Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook. 

CNN Business has compiled a list of some of the most notable technological disasters expected in 2021:

Massive data leaks occur on Facebook and LinkedIn

In April, cybersecurity experts reported that half a billion Facebook users’ personal information, including phone numbers, birthdays, and email addresses, had been leaked to a hacker-controlled website. Facebook stated at the time that the same data had previously been scraped from people’s profiles by “malicious actors” in 2019 — and that the issue that enabled it was resolved that year. The incident demonstrated once again how vulnerable businesses that collect massive amounts of personal data can be to bad actors.

Additionally, LinkedIn confirmed in April that publicly available information scraped from approximately 500 million of its users’ profiles was being sold on a hacker website. At the time, LinkedIn stated that the database for sale was “in fact an aggregation of data from a variety of websites and companies.” Additionally, the company stated that this was “not a LinkedIn data breach.”

The citizen application incorrectly identifies an alleged arsonist

Citizen, a startup whose app sends real-time crime alerts, offered a $30,000 reward in May for information leading to the identification of the person who started a Los Angeles wildfire. Police detained a suspect after receiving tips, including a photo of a man posted to Signal. There was only one (very significant) problem: it turned out he had been mistakenly identified.

The company said it used a new product called OnAir in its app to broadcast the suspect’s information, but failed to follow its own verification protocols prior to disseminating the information.

Ransomware attacks grown to be a major source of contention

Ransomware attacks — in which hackers gain access to a computer system and essentially hold a business hostage for money — increased significantly this year, particularly those targeting businesses and critical infrastructure. In May, a major attack on the Colonial Pipeline demonstrated the vulnerability of US infrastructure to such crimes.

Colonial Pipeline, one of the largest fuel pipelines in the United States, was forced to suspend operations following a cyberattack on its network, which was apparently enabled by hackers exploiting a compromised password. Colonial Pipeline’s CEO later admitted to paying a ransom of $4.4 million to restore the company’s network. In June, US Justice Department investigators announced the recovery of $2.3 million in cryptocurrency paid to hackers responsible for the Colonial Pipeline attack.

Two brief outages shut down a large portion of the internet

It happened twice in less than two weeks: Large swaths of the internet were brought down by outages at technology companies that the majority of people have never heard of. Although the outages were detected quickly and were brief, they demonstrated how reliant we are on the internet and how precarious it can be.

To begin, on June 8, dozens of websites, including Reddit, CNN, and Amazon, went dark as a result of an outage at content delivery network Fastly. Then, on June 17, a similar company, Akamai Technologies, suffered a data breach, which affected websites belonging to Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Fastly’s outage was detected within a minute and lasted less than an hour for the majority of affected websites, while Akamai notified customers within seconds and was able to resolve the issue within four hours (and the company said most affected customers were offline for just minutes).

These were not the year’s only major internet outages: in December, Amazon’s cloud computing service experienced three outages, causing issues for Disney+, Slack, Netflix, and Hulu, among others. Additionally, it impacted Amazon’s logistics operations during the critical holiday shopping season.

Facebook’s heinous day

Monday, October 4, was a disaster for the company that would soon be renamed Meta on numerous fronts.

The previous night, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed her identity on a “60 Minutes” segment, claiming the company was aware of how its social media platforms were being used to spread misinformation, hate speech, and violence. (Haugen was previously identified as the anonymous source who leaked thousands of pages of internal documents to The Wall Street Journal in September, resulting in a series of damning stories dubbed The Facebook Files.)

Then, on Monday, a major outage forced the suspension of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram for several hours, which the company blamed on “configuration changes.” Its stock fell precipitously in trading as the company dealt with the concurrent issues of an outage and backlash over Haugen’s television appearance. And it braced for increased regulatory scrutiny the following day, when Haugen was scheduled to testify before members of Congress. Oh, and that same day, the company requested the dismissal of a Federal Trade Commission antitrust complaint against it.

The day served as a foreshadowing of what was to come later that month. In late October, a consortium of 17 US news organizations began publishing their own stories based on documents included in disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission and redacted by Haugen’s legal counsel and provided to Congress. The consortium, which included CNN, reviewed the Congress-received redacted versions. These stories detailed how coordinated groups use Facebook to incite violence (such as the January 6 insurrection) and how human traffickers exploit people via the social network. (Facebook has attempted to discredit Haugen on numerous occasions, claiming that her testimony and reports on the documents mischaracterize the company’s actions and efforts.)

Zillow learns a hard lesson about using artificial intelligence to estimate home prices

Zillow announced in November that it would close its home-flipping business, Zillow Offers, citing “unpredictability in forecasting home prices” that “far exceeds” expectations.

The announcement was a stunning admission of defeat for the real estate listing company, which took a $304 million inventory write-down in the third quarter, saw its stock plummet, and announced plans to lay off 2,000 employees — nearly a quarter of its workforce.

However, it represented a sharp contrast to earlier this year, when the company appeared so confident in its ability to use AI to estimate home values that it stated that its so-called “Zestimate” would act as an initial cash offer to purchase certain homes. It appears that it is not only difficult to buy and sell homes for profit; it is also extremely difficult to use AI to make such real-world decisions.

Tesla’s “complete self-driving” system scares drivers (including CNN)

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has long lauded the company’s “complete self-driving” software. By late 2021, however, it will still be far from fully autonomous; rather, it will offer driver-assist features that require users to agree to remain alert at the wheel in case they are required to take over. Additionally, only a select group of Tesla drivers have been able to test it out thus far, including a group of customers who paid $10,000 each for access to the feature’s “beta” version.

And, while the feature may sound fantastic, drivers who have used it told CNN Business in November that, aside from the wow factor, they are frequently unsure of what their cars will do next – a frightening prospect when behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds. CNN Business tested the feature on a Tesla Model 3 in November and discovered some frightening results: the software attempted to drive the car into a UPS truck to avoid a cyclist, attempted to drive on the wrong side of the road, and nearly collided with a fence, among other issues.

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