- The past year has seen one tech controversy after another.
- From WeWork’s failed IPO to Jeff Bezos’ divorce and his explosive blog post accusing the National Enquirer of blackmail, no month has been tame.
- Below, we’ve highlighted the biggest scandals of 2019.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The past year has had its fair share of scandal.
From Jeff Bezos’ divorce and subsequent feud with the National Enquirer to the WeWork IPO disaster, the tech world has experienced mishaps and controversies of all kinds.
Like years past, the amount of control users have over their own data and the amount of care tech giants take to protect our privacy came into question. Companies like Facebook’s WhatsApp, Capital One, and Ring all experienced major privacy breaches that allowed hackers to steal passwords and even broadcast into the bedrooms of children.
Scandals from 2018 continued to haunt the tech world as well. What started as one-off revelations about executive misbehavior at Google has since been revealed to be a systemic issue with the company’s culture, leading to employee walkouts and lawsuits claiming illegal retaliation.
And even the products we use every day weren’t safe from scandal: the Apple Card may have a sexism problem, Nest products have secret microphones, and AirPower disappeared altogether.
What follows are the biggest scandals in the tech industry over the course of the last year — grab some popcorn.
January: A Group FaceTime bug lets people eavesdrop on other users.
In a rare privacy misstep for Apple, users noticed in January a bug that allowed people to eavesdrop on other users before they answered FaceTime calls.
The bug affected iPhone, iPad, and Mac users whose devices supported FaceTime.
By early February, Apple had apologized for the issue, fixing the bug on its servers and releasing an iPhone update to turn the feature back on.
“We sincerely apologize to our customers who were affected and all who were concerned about this security issue,” Apple said.
January: Internal Facebook apps are blocked after Apple pulls a developer certificate following the revelation that Facebook violated Apple’s policies.
TechCrunch reported in January that Facebook had been operating a research program in which it paid people in exchange for letting Facebook spy on their data.
But the program violated Apple’s policies, and the revelations resulted in Apple yanking the developer certificate that authenticated Facebook’s research apps.
There was only one problem: that same certificate powered Facebook’s internal apps, like Workplace, which is the internal version of Facebook employees use to communicate.
The move immediately escalated tensions between Apple and Facebook, and sparked employee turmoil. At the time, Facebook employees told Business Insider that other employees were angered by the issues and described the situation as a “self-inflicted wound.”
February: Jeff Bezos accuses National Enquirer publisher AMI and its CEO of “extortion and blackmail.”
In a bombshell blog post, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused American Media Inc. and its CEO, David Pecker, of trying to blackmail him with photos that showed Bezos naked.
Bezos wrote that the publisher had been threatening him with the publication of explicit photos he’d taken of himself unless he stopped investigating who was leaking his photos and texts to the tabloid. AMI also demanded that Bezos no longer claim the publisher’s investigation into his personal life was influenced by political motivations, Bezos wrote.
As a result, Bezos published the emails he’d received from AMI.
“Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” Bezos wrote.
The blog post followed a tumultuous month for Bezos. The CEO and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, announced they were divorcing on Twitter in January — shortly after the news became public, the National Enquirer published a report that Bezos had been dating Lauren Sanchez, a former TV host. The tabloid said it had been conducting a months-long investigation into the relationship and had gotten ahold of “raunchy messages” and selfies the couple had exchanged.
February: Amazon cancels HQ2 in New York City.
Amazon announced in February that it would no longer be opening its planned “HQ2” in New York City’s Long Island City neighborhood.
The company had announced in November 2018 that it would be opening the office in New York City after a national competition for the new headquarters. The office was intended to bring more than 25,000 jobs to the region, but the plan was almost immediately met with resistance from local lawmakers who opposed Amazon’s choice to accept $3 billion in tax breaks from the state of New York and circumvent the land-use process.
Amazon decided to go ahead with the other location for HQ2 in northern Virginia, as well as a new operations hub in Nashville, Tennessee. In December, it was reported that Amazon planned to lease office space at the Hudson Yards complex in Manhattan.
February: Nest draws ire from customers who didn’t realize their devices had a microphone in them.
Google faced controversy in February when it was revealed that the company’s Nest Guard device had a microphone users weren’t aware of.
The privacy concerns came to light after Google announced that the device was getting an update the company likely expected users to be excited about: Google Assistant, the company’s smart voice technology, was coming to the device.
But Google Assistant requires a microphone in order to interact with it — therefore, the Nest Guard must already have one. Google had never disclosed in any of the product information that the device contained a microphone.
“The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs,” a company spokesperson said at the time. “That was an error on our part.”
After the privacy misstep came to light, the Senate Commerce Committee sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding information about why the company hadn’t disclosed the microphone to consumers.
March: Apple cancels its highly anticipated AirPower wireless charging mat.
In a rare move for Apple, the company announced in March it was canceling its AirPower wireless charging mat.
The product, which was intended to charge three devices at once, had already been delayed — it was announced in 2017 alongside the iPhone X, with the launch date initially planned for 2018. But 2018 came and went with no AirPower in sight.
Apple reportedly scrapped the project after running into issues related to heat management. “There are engineers who looked at AirPower’s design and said it could never work,” Apple blogger John Gruber wrote in 2018.
Apple rarely cancels a product it has already announced. While it’s delayed the release of its devices in the past, canceling something outright was an incredibly unusual move for the company.
March: The highly anticipated launch of blockbuster game “Anthem” crashes and burns.
“Anthem,” made by EA’s much-loved BioWare studio, was intended to be one of the biggest games of 2019. Instead, its rocky launch led to it becoming a massive flop.
Before the game was even out, fans worried that it wasn’t going to be the game EA had initially promised. Worse, just playing the game looked complicated, thanks to a confusing “buyers guide” published by EA itself. When the demo finally arrived, it was broken for many people.
When the game came out, critics mostly disliked it, calling it more work than fun. Somehow, it got worse: soon after that, some users said the game was bricking their consoles.
The studio ended up working on bug fixes and laid out a 90-day roadmap for “Anthem” that outlined additions it would bring to the game.
March: The phrase “Subscribe to PewDiePie” is co-opted by the Christchurch shooter.
For much of 2019, YouTuber Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg was locked in a battle with Indian music label T-Series for the title of top YouTube channel (T-Series has officially taken the crown with about 20 million more subscribers).
As part of their ongoing war, PewDiePie started the “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme, a phrase his fans used on everything from t-shirts at the Super Bowl to a banner attached to a plane flying over Manhattan.
But the meme turned from playful to harmful in March. First, a World War II memorial in New York City was defaced with the phrase. Then, the phrase was used in a livestream by the shooter who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people.
PewDiePie condemned the phrase, saying he was “sickened” that his name was mentioned by the shooter.
The YouTuber has a history of using racist and anti-Semitic language in his videos and livestreams, and released two “diss tracks” about T-Series that were blocked in India because they contained multiple racist jokes.
March: It comes to light that Larry Page personally awarded Andy Rubin’s stock grant.
In March, an investor lawsuit reported on by Bloomberg shed light on Android creator Andy Rubin’s exit from Google — specifically, that Google cofounder Larry Page had personally approved a $150 million stock-option package for Rubin, who was being investigated following sexual-misconduct complaints.
The lawsuit alleged that Page had “bypassed” Alphabet’s board of directors when approving the package.
The report followed The New York Times’ bombshell investigation from 2018 that Google had protected Rubin, giving him a massive payout while staying quiet about the sexual misconduct allegations.
At the time, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider: “There are serious consequences for anyone who behaves inappropriately at Google. In recent years, we’ve made many changes to our workplace and taken an increasingly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority.”
April: Samsung’s ambitious Galaxy Fold gets off to a disastrous start.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold, an ambitious new folding smartphone, was revealed in 2018. The device had a flexible touchscreen display and folds up to something that more closely resembles a standard smartphone.
The first devices started arriving in reviewers’ hands in April, but many people had issues almost immediately. At least four people said their Galaxy Folds broke in one way or another — either in the form of a cracked screen or a bulge that developed underneath the display.
Soon after, Samsung officially delayed the launch of the device and canceled preorders of the phone. Throughout the summer, Samsung made changes to the design in hopes of preventing the issues reviewers had found with the Fold: namely, extending the top protective layer of the device and adding “additional reinforcements” that would protect the device from debris.
Samsung relaunched the phone in September, and so far, so good.
May: Huawei is blacklisted by the US government.
In mid-May, the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei to the “entity list,” essentially blacklisting US companies from doing business with the Chinese tech firm. Soon after the announcement, major US companies like Google, Qualcomm, and Intel severed ties with Huawei.
The reason for blacklisting Huawei appeared to be twofold: the US government said it was because the company was “engaged in activities that are contrary to US national security or foreign policy interest.” But President Donald Trump also indicated that the blacklisting might have been a chess move in the US-China trade war.
Regardless of the reason, the fallout for Huawei is particularly rough when it comes to Google: Huawei smartphones run on the Android operating system, which is owned by Google. While Android still works because it’s open-source software, where Huawei runs into trouble is Google Mobile Services, or the apps that Google makes, which require a license. This means anyone who buys a Huawei phone now will not have access to Google Maps, Gmail, or any other major Google app many of us rely on.
When Huawei was placed on the entity list initially, it was given a 90-day reprieve that allowed US companies to keep doing business with Huawei. That reprieve was then extended to November, and Huawei was subsequently granted a third extension.
May: WhatsApp experiences a massive security breach.
WhatsApp announced in May that it had experienced a security breach in the form of “an advanced cyber actor” who infected an unknown number of devices with malware.
Hackers were able to install the technology by calling someone through WhatsApp. Even if they didn’t pick up, hackers were still able to get access to information like private messages and location data.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has more than 1.5 billion users worldwide.
In October, WhatsApp filed suit against NSO Group — an Israeli software company that typically makes software for governments — claiming the company made the spyware used in the attack. While NSO Group denied any involvement in the hack, the head of WhatsApp wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that WhatsApp has evidence of NSO Group’s involvement.
NSO Group has continued to deny its involvement and told The Verge it will “vigorously fight” the suit.
May: Mark Zuckerberg’s personal security chief is accused of misconduct by two former staff members.
In May, a Business Insider investigation revealed that Mark Zuckerberg’s personal head of security, Liam Booth, had been accused of sexual harassment and making racist and homophobic comments, including racist remarks about Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, who is Asian American.
After the allegations came to light, a spokesperson for Zuckerberg’s family office told Business Insider that it takes complaints of workplace misconduct seriously, and that it would investigate the claims and place Booth on administrative leave.
In July, Booth left Zuckerberg’s family office, although investigators from the office’s human resources department and an outside law firm were not able to substantiate the allegations.
June: Ring is revealed to be working with police departments across the US.
In June, a CNET report revealed that Amazon’s Ring smart security camera company had been working with law enforcement, creating a sort of unofficial surveillance network.
Police departments across the US had been offering free or discounted Ring video doorbells to residents, often on the condition that they give police access to the footage those devices capture. While Ring has stated that users control their own footage and are not required to share it with police, CNET noted that some of the programs police were offering contradicted that policy.
Then, in August, a Vice report revealed that law enforcement officials had contacted Ring asking for advice on how to get users to be more forthcoming with their footage. Ring provided templates for asking for footage and gave other tips like posting in the company’s Neighbors portal, according to Vice.
“Ring offers best practices for posting and engaging with app users for all law enforcement agencies utilizing the portal tool,” Ring told Business Insider at the time. “We also provide templates and educational materials for police departments to utilize at their discretion to help them keep their communities informed about their efforts on Neighbors.”
June: YouTube faces backlash over its handling of the Steven Crowder-Carlos Maza controversy.
YouTube has long faced questions about its seemingly inconsistent or ineffective moderation policies, and in June, the issue came to a head.
Carlos Maza, a journalist for Vox, shared on Twitter comments made by Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTube star with over 4 million subscribers. Crowder had frequently mocked Maza’s ethnicity and sexuality, referring to him as a “lispy queer” and a “gay latino.”
While many expected YouTube to ban Crowder, the video platform said Crowder’s comments didn’t violate its policies.
The decision sparked backlash, both from public figures like Vox’s publisher and former Reddit exec Ellen Pao, as well as Google’s own employees — eventually, YouTube decided to demonetize Crowder’s channel so he could no longer make money off of ads. In December, YouTube announced it was changing its harassment policies.
June: A photo of tech executives visiting an Italian designer includes digitally added female executives.
In June, tech executives like Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, Drew Houston, and Dick Costolo took a group field trip to visit high-end fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli at his home in Italy, as first reported by GQ’s Samuel Hine.
Photos from the trip — which Nextdoor cofounder Nirav Tolia told GQ was called the “Solomeo Summit,” named after the tiny town where Cucinelli is based — were posted on Cucinelli’s Instagram account.
But eagle-eyed readers noticed something was off with the photo, specifically with the female executives.
BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac looked at the exif data for the image and figured out that it was, indeed, Photoshopped.
Cucinelli’s fashion house told Business Insider that the image had been altered after the company realized it forgot to get a group shot where every attendee was present. “We meant no harm or had any malicious intent in doing this and we are sorry,” the company said.
But critics pointed to a larger issue: only two women were present at the event in the first place.
July: Capital One hit with a massive breach affecting millions of customers.
Capital One announced in July it had been hit with a massive data breach affecting over 100 million customers.
Capital One said the accessed data included names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, dates of birth, and income. Most of the information that was accessed was from customers who applied for credit cards between 2005 and 2019.
In total, the breach affected 100 million individuals in the US and an estimated 6 million in Canada.
Paige A. Thompson, a former AWS software engineer, was arrested shortly after by the FBI on charges of computer fraud and abuse after she posted about the breach on GitHub.
July: Facebook is fined a record $5 billion over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The FTC announced in July it was fining Facebook $5 billion over how the company handled user data in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“The $5 billion penalty against Facebook is the largest ever imposed on any company for violating consumers’ privacy and almost 20 times greater than the largest privacy or data security penalty ever imposed worldwide,” the FTC said in a statement at the time.
The FTC’s penalty included more than just a record fine: it also mandated Facebook make sweeping privacy changes, including increased oversight of third-party apps, encrypting user passwords, a ban on using users’ phone numbers for advertising purposes, and more.
August: Online message board 8chan goes dark after being tied to three mass shooting manifestos in one year.
In August, 22 people were killed and dozens were injured at a mass shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Prior to the attack, the shooter reportedly posted a manifesto to 8chan, an online message board that bills itself as “the Darkest Reaches of the Internet.”
But it wasn’t the first time it had happened. Ahead of the Christchurch, New Zealand shooting in May, the shooter was said to have published a 74-page manifesto on 8chan. And the shooter who attacked a synagogue in California in April also reportedly posted a manifesto to 8chan in advance.
The connection to mass shootings caused 8chan’s internet-security provider, Cloudflare, to stop working with the site.
“8chan has repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate,” Cloudflare wrote in a blog post in August. “We just sent notice that we are terminating 8chan as a customer effective at midnight tonight Pacific Time. The rationale is simple: they have proven themselves to be lawless and that lawlessness has caused multiple tragic deaths.”
After bouncing to other providers, 8chan went dark and has since come back in a new form, 8kun, a similar online message board.
In September, 8chan’s owner, Jim Watkins, participated in a closed-door deposition with a US House of Representatives panel.
“If 8chan comes back online, it will be done when 8chan develops additional tools to counter illegal content under United States law,” Watkins said in the statement that was released by his lawyer, according to Reuters.
August: A former Googler writes bombshell post about her relationship with Alphabet’s chief legal officer, David Drummond.
In August, a former Google employee named Jennifer Blakely published an explosive Medium post that described a relationship with David Drummond, Alphabet’s chief legal officer.
Blakely’s account described a years-long relationship with Drummond, who was married at the time. Blakely alleged that Drummond fathered a son with her in 2007, and in 2008, told her he was never coming back, subsequently going months or years without seeing their son. What came after, Blakely wrote, was a drawn-out custody battle between her and Drummond, with Drummond eventually agreeing to pay child support.
The allegations came after multiple reports over the last year of sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships at Google, including several between male executives and junior colleagues.
“I lived through it first hand and I believe a company’s culture, its behavioral patterns, start at the top,” Blakely wrote. Drummond said in August that he is “far from perfect” but that there “two sides” to the story.
August: Amazon is caught selling products declared unsafe by the government.
In August, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed more than 4,000 items for sale on Amazon by third-party sellers that had been declared “unsafe by federal agencies.”
This included items like eyelash serums that said they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration but weren’t, and supplements that may have contained illegally imported prescription drugs, according the Journal.
Additionally, items meant for kids, like toys or balloons, lacked choking-hazard warnings, the Journal found.
Amazon changed or removed thousands of listings after the Journal’s investigation and posted a blog post detailing how its safety and compliance program works.
September: WeWork’s disastrous IPO attempt results in Adam Neumann’s ouster and SoftBank taking control.
When WeWork filed public paperwork for its initial public offering in August, the coworking juggernaut had last been privately valued at $47 billion and its leader, Adam Neumann, was a powerful if eccentric CEO on the rise.
By September, it was crashing down.
WeWork’s filings revealed just how much power Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, wielded at the company. Neumann’s stock was worth 20 votes per share — about double as many as votes held by other CEOs — and he’d made other unusual and highly criticized moves, like paying himself $6 million for the right to use the name “We.”
By mid-September, WeWork made moves to limit the Neumanns’ control of the company and its board of directors. A few days later, the IPO was officially delayed after reports said WeWork was mulling a drastically reduced valuation of $10 billion.
Things came to a head after The Wall Street Journal’s Eliot Brown reported on Neumann’s hard-partying behavior and unconventional management style. By the end of September, Neumann had stepped down as CEO.
WeWork’s IPO has now been shelved and the company’s largest investor, SoftBank, has taken control of the company. SoftBank reportedly paid Neumann $1.7 billion to leave the company’s board and give up his voting power.
September: Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to tech executives and MIT are revealed.
Although the financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein died in August, revelations about his vast web of high-profile connections have continued to surface.
Epstein hobnobbed with many powerful people, from world leaders to famous CEOs. But he also had ties to people who worked in the world of tech, including Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, according to CNBC and Vanity Fair, respectively.
“I made a mistake in judgment in thinking those discussions would go to global health … that money never appeared,” Gates said during a panel discussion hosted by The New York Times Dealbook series. “And I gave him benefit of my association,” Gates said.
“By agreeing to participate in any fundraising activity where Epstein was present, I helped to repair his reputation and perpetuate injustice. For this, I am deeply regretful,” Hoffman said in an email to Axios.
But in September, it was Epstein’s connection to the prestigious MIT Media Lab that caused controversy. A report from The New Yorker revealed that MIT had accepted at least $7.5 million in donations via Epstein from people like Gates and investor Leon Black.
The leadership at the Media Lab was reportedly aware of Epstein’s status as a convicted sex offender, and the problems that would arise from accepting the money. The leadership attempted to conceal where the money came from — in emails obtained by The New Yorker, leadership wrote phrases like, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous.”
After The New Yorker’s investigation, Joichi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab, resigned from his position. MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said the school would launch “an immediate, thorough and independent investigation.”
October: Five people are shot at a party at an Airbnb in Northern California.
On Halloween, five people were shot and killed at an Airbnb “party house” in Orinda, California.
The Associated Press reported that the woman who rented the house lied to the host of the property about why she was renting it. While the host was concerned about a one-night rental on Halloween, she agreed to it. What resulted was a 100-person party at the house.
Unauthorized parties have always been banned on Airbnb, but the company now plans to increase scrutiny of reservations, particularly one-night reservations for large houses.
Airbnb also announced four additional safety changes following the shooting, including verifying all listings, a guest guarantee if the property doesn’t match the listing, a 24/7 hotline, and a review of any “high-risk listings.”
November: TikTok suspends the account of a user who posted a video critical of China’s treatment of Muslims.
In November, an American teenager named Feroza Aziz posted a TikTok video that, from the outset, appeared to be just another online makeup tutorial. But in between showing how to correctly curl your eyelashes, Aziz called out the Chinese government for its treatment of Muslims.
The video went viral, but soon after, TikTok suspended Aziz’s account. After public outcry, TikTok reinstated Aziz’s account and apologized for suspending it in the first place.
But the controversy came after the video-sharing app has faced scrutiny in 2019 over its connection to China. While the app isn’t available in China, it is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and employees, users, and government officials have all questioned whether the company censors anti-China content on the app.
TikTok has denied these claims, arguing that none of the company’s content moderators are based in China and that no “foreign government” pressures it to censor content.
A September report from The Guardian, citing leaked documents, said that TikTok instructed its moderators “to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.” TikTok, in a statement to The Guardian, said those guidelines were no longer in use as of May 2019.
“In TikTok’s early days we took a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform, and our moderation guidelines allowed penalties to be given for things like content that promoted conflict, such as between religious sects or ethnic groups, spanning a number of regions around the world,” the company said. “As TikTok began to take off globally last year, we recognised that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market. As we’ve grown we’ve implemented this localised approach across everything from product, to team, to policy development.”
November: Apple Card’s credit limit algorithm is accused of gender bias.
Apple introduced its own credit card earlier in September, its first foray into financial services.
But just a few months after its release, a viral tweet thread called out Apple for an issue with the algorithm that determined credit limits for individuals applying for the card.
Web programmer and author David Heinemeier Hansson shared on Twitter that he and his wife had both applied for the card, but he was offered 20 times the credit limit his wife was. The couple files joint tax returns, and his wife has a higher credit score.
Others chimed in that they had experienced something similar, including Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.
As a result, Bloomberg reported, the New York Department of Financial Services launched a probe into the credit card of Goldman Sachs, one of Apple’s partners on the card.
December: Ring cameras are infiltrated by hackers and log-in information of thousands of users is leaked.
It’s been a tumultuous year for Ring, the smart security camera company owned by Amazon.
In December, the company’s indoor cameras have experienced multiple breaches that have alarmed customers. First, a family in Tennessee said their Ring camera was broken into, and the hackers were able to not only see their 8-year-old daughter, but speak to her through the camera.
Then, a Calabasas woman said her Ring camera were accessed by hackers who used the speakers to ask for “horrible, horrible things,” according to CBS Los Angeles.
After the hack in Tennessee, Ring said it would introduce new security features, but also said the hacker’s access was partly due to the family’s own weak security settings, like using the same password it uses for other accounts.
But things got worse for Ring: a BuzzFeed News report revealed that log-in information for over 3,600 Ring owners had been leaked in December as well. The information was reportedly left unprotected on a text storage website, and some of that information was then uploaded to a dark-web server, according to TechCrunch.
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Year in Review 2019