Top tech blunders, catastrophes and epic fails of 2013

Thanksgiving is over, and we're already deep into December. It's time for a look back at all the blunders, catastrophes, epic fails and major screw-ups of 2013.
1 of 20 Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

U.S. can't handle its scandal: 2013 mass surveillance leaks

In June, U.S. former government contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid on one of the world's biggest secrets in living history: the U.S. government was engaged in a massive global dragnet surveillance operation.

The leaks sparked mass debate around the world between national security priorities and citizen civil liberties. It was a massive punch in the face for the White House, which had spent decades keeping the spying programs under wraps. 

Snowden was charged with espionage, but ultimately fled to Russia under the former-Communist country's protection, and out of the U.S.' reach. But additional leaks implicated other nations, including those of the "Five Eyes" — the U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. It was a government stuff-up on epic proportions.

It was without doubt the epic fail of the year — allowing Snowden to walk away with tens of thousands of documents that detail in near-exact detail how the U.S. and other countries spy on each other (and themselves).

2 of 20 Ed Bott/ZDNet

Amid NSA scandal, the collapse of journalism

The U.S. government leaks were bad enough, but the early reporting on the emerging NSA scandal was just as dire. 

With the release of the first slides on PRISM, the two newspaper giants The Guardian and The Washington Post were behind the breaking stories. But The Post, which was playing catch-up with its British journalistic counterparts, reported something that was not strictly true — even if it's what the leaked documents said or even alluded to.

Despite being the one and only source on the matter, the newspapers failed to "vet" him properly. 

Claiming that the NSA had "direct access" to servers of Silicon Valley giants led The Post to eventually withdraw the vast majority of its story without explaining exactly what or why. It was a mess that led to harsh critique of the publication.

The Post went on to accurately report further leaks supplied by the former U.S. government contractor.

3 of 20 ZDNet/Internet Archive

Java zero-day exploit led to spate of Silicon Valley hacking

While the NSA was not able (that we know of... yet) to gain "direct access" to Silicon Valley servers — with the exception of Google and Yahoo, hackers successfully infiltrated the internal networks of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter.

The story broke at the start of the year in a tale of two parts. Hackers had rigged a popular iPhone development site with malware. When developers at the named companies accessed the site from a work machine, an unpatched Java zero-day exploit allowed attackers into their internal networks.

While no company data was taken, with Microsoft et al admitting that only a few machines were affected, it came at a time where many companies were on their guard from a recent spate of China and Syria-based hackers.

Even the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security warned users to disable or uninstall Java as a result of the flaw, which ultimately went on to affect hundreds of millions of Windows, Mac, and Linux machines — including mobile devices, embedded systems, Web applications, and servers.

4 of 20 CNET

Controversial cyber-security data sharing law passes the U.S. House

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, commonly referred to as CISPA, was a controversial security bill that eventually passed the U.S. Senate, despite being scrapped more than a year earlier.

Many considered the bill to be a major threat to Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. It would have allowed private sector firms to search personal and sensitive user data of ordinary U.S. residents to identify "threat information," which can then be shared with other opt-in firms and the U.S. government without the need for a court-ordered warrant. 

It was hoped that the data could be used in real time to stop cyberattacks in their tracks, or even trace back to the source of the attack. 

Despite the uproar and the concern by many, the fact that senators still passed the bill — even if it failed in the House — represented a disaster for citizen representation, as hundreds of thousands protested the bill.

5 of 20 Guardian/Twitter

Anonymous rages on: Hacks prevail, leaks continue

If you thought hacktivist group Anonymous had been relatively quiet this year, think again.

In January, the hacking group attacked the U.S. Sentencing Commission in an operation dubbed "Operation Last Resort." This led to the distribution of government files in apparent retaliation of hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide after facing a lengthy jail sentence many considered disproportionally large.

The federal authorities were left "stumbling" after the attack, which resulted in a number of government websites being down for days. 

Later in the year, the loose-knit collective went on to attack networks that led to the publication of more than 4,000 separate bits of login information, credentials, IP addresses, and contact information of American bank executives. 

It was a public relations nightmare for the U.S. government, which had already faced heavy criticism for its handling of the Swartz case. It was a show of force that led the government and others to realize the hacking collective may have been quiet during the year, but they haven't gone away — while at the same time pushing for changes to the law that would ultimately legally avenge the death of Swartz in a namesake law.

6 of 20 CNET

iOS 7 design change freaked out some people; suffers with bugs, security lapses

By now, the end of the year, many have overcome the "shock" of the new user interface to Apple's latest mobile platform, iOS 7. 

But it caused enough of a stir at first to deter millions from upgrading immediately.

Many didn't upgrade immediately because it broke existing enterprise services. Some were warned off because the upgrade would cause device slow-downs. And, other bugs made the software near impossible to use for some. There were dozens of new features added in the update that saw a high level of uptake, but hardly rocket to the extent Apple wanted.

Now more than three months later, three-quarters of all devices are running iOS 7, a slower pace than earlier releases.

Some of the major issues boiled down to security. There was a bug seemingly every minute, and a security flaw with almost every minor update.

In one case, it was possible to bypass the lock screen and forward personal photos and contacts to other people.

7 of 20 James Martin/CNET

Facebook hit with privacy, "shadow profile" controversies

Facebook stirred more controversy this year as it attempted to balance privacy and free speech, but couldn't manage to do either.

The world's largest social network, with more than one billion users worldwide, collected information on people who weren't even signed up to the social network. This "bug" spanned a year beginning in 2012 and affected more than six million users. The data related to people who had expressly not given their permission for Facebook to collect their data, including email addresses and phone numbers. For those who protect their data, it was a privacy flop of epic proportions.

Also, the company found itself in hot water after it decided to first ban and then permit videos of people being decapitated. Either way, Facebook couldn't escape controversy. In any case, Facebook's decision was going to royally screw up at least someone's day.

8 of 20 Kim Dotcom/Twitter

FBI inadvertently brings file-sharing battle to worldwide attention

If you're going to bring someone down, try to do it quietly. In the FBI's case, the federal agency failed miserably when it tried to extradite alleged pirate king Kim Dotcom to the U.S.

The trouble is the FBI picked the wrong guy to start a war with. Despite throwing the full weight of the New Zealand police to launch a look-a-like anti-terrorist operation against for charges of "racketeering, money laundering, and copyright theft," he ultimately evaded U.S. authorities.

Dotcom dusted himself off and relaunched his newly branded file service startup. As for the New Zealand authorities, they were slapped for "illegal spying" which forced the country's prime minister to publicly apologize.

9 of 20 CNET

Windows 8 struggles to grasp usage share; updates aim to redirect course

Months after Windows 8 launched, the operating system barely grasped single-digit market share. Many considered it a flop, but to others it was a starting ground for better things to come.  

It was criticized for its game-changing user interface. It was difficult to use for some who had been used to the typical 'Windows' experience for many years prior.

And for those using desktops and notebooks without touch screens — a large majority of the overall user base — it was just too much for some to relearn. The fact that Microsoft killed the Start menu also killed the company's hope of millions of people upgrading.

Ultimately it led the software giant down a course of eating humble pie, resulting in Windows 8.1, a software update that attempted to appease (and entice) customers who were thrown off by the first round of changes. The Start menu was brought back — in a sense — and booting directly to desktop may have had some positive impact on less-than-pleased customers.

Many forgot that Microsoft isn't just a "Windows" company anymore. 

10 of 20 CNET

iPhones, iPads banned from business networks thanks to Exchange conflict

Before iOS 7 was even announced, iOS 6.1 was causing serious headaches in the enterprise IT department.

Corporate network staff warned iPhone and iPad users to avoid upgrading to the latest Apple mobile update because of a server conflict bug that would overload over Microsoft Exchange servers.

Both companies scrambled to determine what was the cause of the "excessive logging" on email servers. While Apple was left scratching its head, Microsoft came to the rescue.

The one bright side was the cooperation between the two technology giants, who not long before were at war with one another.

11 of 20 CNET

Samsung's breakthrough smart watch was scolded by critics

Desperate to get ahead of rumors that its archrival Apple was developing a smart watch, Samsung threw its weight behind its own Galaxy Gear.

The trouble was, it wasn't finished, and looked more akin to a slightly polished namesake device from the late 1990s.

Many dubbed it a "failure" off the mark, and still cost watch wearers $299 for the privilege of having something that wasn't complete.

That said, close to one million people still bought the device, but the device suffered "death by review." The tech media crushed the device in their write-ups.

Meanwhile, a number of other wearable devices hit the market later on after further development in efforts to learn from Samsung's mistakes.

12 of 20 Yuko Honda via CNET

Yahoo's string of fluff-ups month-on-month

Yahoo had a tough year. It spent most of its time cleaning up the horrendous mess it created by changing something, redesigning something, or upgrading a product. It left end users angry, and even its own staff stressed out.

Just months after starting at the company, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer repealed the company's telecommuting policy, forcing all employees to muck-in at their respective local offices. The decision alone was controversial, but it was only compounded by a lack of explanation behind the move.

The company then gave itself a makeover with a new redesigned logo. Not one, but 30 over the course of as many days. Eventually it settled on just one, spreading the news out for longer than it should've done in efforts to milk the media's attention

But what really angered a lot of people, including Yahoo staff who reportedly don't even eat their own "dogfood," was the redesigned Yahoo Mail, which crumbled after it first relaunched.

Thousands of users complained about the new product as a result of the bevy of technical failures and glitches.

13 of 20 BlackBerry

BlackBerry unravels, chief executive 'resigns'

BlackBerry was already on a downward spiral, but really began to crumble when it reported a near-$1 billion loss as a result of going all-in on its next-generation smartphone, the BlackBerry Z10. 

The company cut 4,500 staff amid serious concerns about the company's balance sheet. BlackBerry was already by this point looking for a bank or investment firm to bail out the company, which ultimately failed.

BlackBerry subsequently waved goodbye to its chief executive Thorsten Heins, who failed to turn the company around following the rise of competing smartphones.

Former Sybase boss John Chen took the lead and promised to turn the company around. But the proof will be in the pudding. Chen said he will "rebuild" the company and keep the smartphone-making unit, but many enterprise customers are looking 

14 of 20 CBS/ZDNet

Obamacare passes, but Healthcare.gov falls flat on its face

Yes, this may be buried way down the list but it was arguably the biggest public-raging stuff-up of the year. It even had the President knocking it from above.

The Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," was just one part of the plan to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system. The problems landed with the website, which on launch day failed to work.

It was an absolute mess: data wasn't going to the right places, users couldn't sign up for anything, and the website would crash every few seconds making it impossible to do anything. 

The White House brought in the big guns in form of Silicon Valley to help fix the failed website. Eventually the hosting was scrapped and replaced by HP, which actually knows what it's doing when it comes to these things.

It took two whole months to realize the scope of the issues, and extended the deadline for sign-ups into 2014 to appease disgruntled Americans. 

15 of 20 ZDNet

Google squares up with Europe over antitrust charges

Google dropped the ball this year when it was forced to renegotiate (at least on two occasions) its antitrust settlement with the European Union, after the executive body threw allegations of anticompetitive behavior at the search giant.

The company said it "did a pretty good job" on offering concessions to the 28 member state bloc, which was quickly thrown back by Europe's antitrust chief who remained less than pleased with the offering. It was a particularly embarrassing public relations stunt for Google. And the case is far from over yet.

In efforts to avoid being forced to change its business practices, the world's most used search engine may end up having to offer links to competing services to its own products.

16 of 20 CNET

HTC may be "quietly brilliant," but also "loudly sinking"

Despite its good quality and high-end Android phones, Taiwanese phone giant HTC began to sink rapidly over the course of the year.

After having a fairytale 2010, two years later the company's finances began to unravel. Eventually the company was forced to look inwards and work out what was causing the issues.

It turns out it was the chief executive, Peter Chou, who after a series of mistakes and ill-thought out plans led the company down a path of likely no return. 

Chou eventually was all-but-forced to hand over some of his responsibilities to the company's founder and chairwoman following a number of high-level executives dashed for the door. Further cutbacks also saw a number of U.S. staff lose their jobs. And even with a reported Amazon smartphone deal, there's no certainty if the company can keep its head above the water.

17 of 20 CNET

Apple's iPhone 5s' fingerprint sensor bypassed in days after launch

The flagship feature to Apple's premium model iPhone 5s, announced in September, was a fingerprint sensor dubbed Touch ID.

It was described as one of the most advanced biometric scanners developed by a company to date. It didn't last long though.

Within just a few days, a bounty was put on the technology's head to see if hackers could bypass the device's security. Lo and behold, the Cupertino, Calif.-based technology giant ended up with egg on its face after it was bypassed with a fake finger.

Apple stayed mum on the matter and didn't acknowledge the hack. It was nice while it lasted — all of about a week.

18 of 20 CNET

Tesla rips New York Times over dubious review

Up and coming technology star Tesla suffered serious burns from a journalism fire set by The New York Times, which claimed in a review of its Tesla Model S that the electric car couldn't keep a charge and ran out of juice long before the reviewer reached their intended destination. 

Tesla founder and all-round genius Elon Musk lambasted the article, which he claimed cost the company about $100 million as a result.

Musk accused the reviewer of failing to charge the car fully before his intended roadtrip — all revealed by the car's logs, which Musk later published — leading to claims of bias and suggestions that the reviewer "faked" the test.

In the end, though Tesla suffered a hit at first, it was the New York-based newspaper that came away far more bruised.

19 of 20 ZDNet

Adobe security breach affects tens of millions, fallout extensive

In what was probably the worst hack of the year (perhaps the decade, shy of Sony PlayStation's Network hacking catastrophe).

Adobe suffered a massive data breach in October that resulted in the theft of up to 38 million users

Many were more angered by the fact Adobe didn't start emailing people affected by the hack until close to a month after the news first came to light.

Some of the passwords were simply and easy to crack, in spite of Adobe's encryption methods.

As a result, other companies — like Facebook and Amazon — took charge of its own user base and warned those who might have used the same Adobe password on the social network to change their passwords too.

20 of 20 Google/CNET

Google Reader shuts down; users go nuts

Life is full of those hacks that make the day-to-day just that much easier. The online world isn't so different.

So when Google decided to close down its Web-based RSS reader, the internet jumped off the deep end. 

Because so many applications and services rely on Google Reader, it led to many popular services shutting down, but also many springing up to replace the news aggregator. Google said it was closing the service in order to put energy "into fewer projects," but many loyal users weren't happy — in total, millions of them.

The bright side is that it gave other companies a way to fill the void. Feedly, a replacement Google Reader service, drummed up half-a-million new users in just two days, and three million in the following two weeks.

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