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Robocalls, selfies and privacy gone wrong: The worst of a decade in tech

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This story is part of The 2010s: A Decade in Review, a series on the memes, people, products, movies and so much more that have influenced the 2010s.

The hardest part of listing the worst things in tech from the past decade is narrowing it down. This is by no means an exhaustive list, or even a comprehensive set of highlights. Security breaches and privacy lapses would take up a whole post on their own, and the worst products of the past 10 years would be a whole other list. Other developments, like nascent brain-computer interfaces or eerily lifelike robots, aren’t far enough along yet to make a fair judgment. We’ll have to wait to consider them for next decade’s Big Bag of Creepy.

Here are my picks, in no particular order — because would you want to start or end with the most grim? And if you’d like a dose of good news, here’s our list of the top tech trends of the decade.


Jason Schneider  

Ring, ring, ring. It’s ‘Scam Likely’ calling

Congress has passed laws to stop robocalls, carriers have tried to crack down with the support of the FCC and the FTC has slapped offenders with fines in the millions. But guess what? By the end of this decade, on average people will be getting more spam calls than wanted ones — some of us already do. And they’re costing the US billions.

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Sure, you can take steps to limit them, but there’s nothing on the horizon to stop them completely. That’s because no matter the proposed solutions or advice everyone gives, spammers can always spoof a new phone number and you can’t prevent robocalls from going to your voice mail and leaving a message. Robocalls are simply too cheap to operate. I Googled Robocalls and the top results were from people offering to make them for less than a penny per minute. (And with no mechanism for recipients to complain, by the way.) Too many people not only answer the robocalls, but also fall for whatever they’re selling (or scamming), making the operation profitable for perpetrators. 

Our only defense is not to pick up the phone and block spoofed numbers in a game of Whack-a-Mole.

Susan Kare, creator of the icons on the original Macintosh, testifies for Apple at a trial to determine Samsung patent infringement damages.

Susan Kare, creator of the icons on the original Macintosh, testifies for Apple at a trial to determine Samsung patent infringement damages.


Sketch by Vicki Behringer

Always in court 

Though the Apple v. Samsung
lawsuit may have barely registered in many people’s consciousness, this was seven years of tech journalists’ lives we’ll never get back. And for what? After battling in courts for years, the two companies finally reached a settlement in June 2018. It’s unclear exactly how much Samsung paid Apple, but it’s likely around $1 billion. High as that total seems, it’s barely a blip on either company’s bottom line. 

Ultimately, the battle and settlement had little impact on consumers. Phones are still largely rectangular slabs of glass like the first iPhone (though we’re now seeing bigger screens and foldable designs), and because the two settled, the battle never actually resolved how to value design patents. The lawyers, on the other hand, are probably the only ones who now find $1,000 phones to be cheap.

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Flameouts

From ground-dwelling hoverboards to the infamously flammable Note 7, it’s been a big decade for tech to halt and catch fire. A lot of gadget fires these days are caused by lithium-ion batteries — if you remember your kiddie chemistry, the alkali metals are funtastic when they come into contact with basics like oxygen or water. And don’t forget other random fiery mishaps, as we’ve seen from e-cigarettes and vape pens or Tesla’s solar panels

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James Martin/CNET

Danger on the move

The last 10 years have occasionally been a perilous time to travel due to tech failures. The most terrifying? In the past year, 346 people died in two crashes of Boeing’s new 737 Max within a five-month span. Though the official reports on both crashes have yet to be released, preliminary reports suggest that a flight control system, which is designed to push the Max’s nose down under certain flight conditions, was receiving erroneous data from faulty sensors. The airliner remains grounded worldwide as Boeing works to fix the control system and win regulatory approval to resume 737 Max passenger flights.





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A more wide-ranging issue has been Takata airbags, which have been blamed for at least 23 deaths and hundreds of injuries thanks to inflators fracturing and hurling shrapnel into drivers and passengers. Though the recalls began in 2008, it wasn’t until 2013 that the individual recalls started to top the 1 million mark — 41.6 million vehicles have been recalled thus far. New technologies have hit safety snags, as well. We’ve seen the first death attributable to an autonomous vehicle, spikes in injuries related to e-bikes and e-scooters and the rise and fall of the aforementioned hoverboards, thanks to battery fires. 

Selfies bring out the stupid and selfish

If Wikipedia is correct, almost 300 people have died since smartphone selfie cameras became a thing in 2010. And if people are silly and vain enough to die taking selfies — or killfies, as they’ve been dubbed by some experts — while flying planes, posing near wild animals, posing with guns, standing in front of speeding trains, ignoring the undertow and so on, that’s their business. But when there are negative externalities involved, it’s a different story. Selfish selfie takers have been ruining landscapes, trampling tulips, killing animals, shattering monuments, destroying art and more in pursuit of solipsistic satisfaction.





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SOPA, PIPA and the dismantling of net neutrality 

On one hand, the response to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act in 2012 proved that our connected world has unprecedented power to mobilize a traditionally disparate group of people against powerful, focused groups with a lot of money to spend on lobbying. On the other hand, the fact that these two rabidly anti-consumer bills sponsored by lobbyists who (at best) didn’t care about their potentially unintended consequences made it as far as they did foreshadowed the current era where the FCC gifted a rollback of net neutrality to corporate interests last year. 

But the battle rages on: On Oct. 1 a federal appeals court upheld the FCC’s repeal, but also ruled that states could pass their own net neutrality protections. Even so, it’s still not certain if California will get to impose the net neutrality rules that the state’s legislature passed in 2018 (a move that quickly brought a Justice Department lawsuit).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlimited, but throttled

There’ve been a lot of corporate shenanigans in the past 10 years, but few things match the scope of phone carriers successfully redefining the meaning of unlimited data plans. It’s not that you’re suddenly capped when you use a certain amount of megabytes, but your speed may slow to a crawl under a practice called throttling. Carriers, of course, denied that they’re throttling. No, they said, they’re just “deprioritizing” you. It’s all buried in the fine print of your contract with language like, “Customers who use more than 50GB of data during a billing cycle will be ‘deprioritized’ during times & places where the Sprint network is constrained.” 

That’s Orwellian-level doublespeak. Imagine if your employer said it would pay you $50,000 a year, but in the fine print of your contract was the caveat that once you’d been paid $25,000 you’d start getting it in pennies. And if too many co-workers joined you at that penny threshold, it would have to start paying you less frequently.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The siren call of subscriptions

Subscription services for physical objects have been around for a long time; Book of the Month Club has been around since 1926 and Netflix started out shipping DVDs. But jealous of the few companies who’ve made it big in video streaming — Netflix is the obvious example — many businesses now love the combination of steady income, customer lock-in and the wealth of personal data that subscriptions deliver. As a result, we’ve seen a boom in the number and types of companies adopting the model, especially in entertainment, putting us in subscription overload and possibly leading us to pay far more than we think for the convenience. We’ve started to judge new services, such as Apple Arcade, by their ability to attract our jaded, fatigued attention.

Worse, though, in order to launch new services, companies that own the rights to any content whatsoever are pulling that content from platforms you already subscribe to: think Disney pulling its content from NetflixNBCUniversal pulling The Office, HBO buying the exclusive rights to future seasons of Doctor Who and Friends for its spring 2020 launch, and so on. So we’re being forced to subscribe to more places to maintain the same mix of content. (Disclosure: CBS Corp., which owns streaming service CBS All Access, is the parent of CNET.)

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This wall display teaches visitors about Stuxnet, the “first weapon to be made entirely out of code.”


Sarah Tew/CNET

Rise of the cyberweapons

Stuxnet wormed its way into our lives in 2010, and in 2015, a cyberattack for the first time took out a power grid. The latest tool in the arsenal is ransomware like WannaCry and Petya, which encrypt the contents of a system so you can’t access it without ponying up a ransom. That tactic went large scale in 2017 by holding local governments and cities hostage. 

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This sculpture represents visually what most of us realize is the disturbingly extensive data set easily collected by Google about users’ travel patterns, purchases, contacts, browsing search terms, and much more.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Not-so-private privacy

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a veritable boom in privacy-infringing technology. Some of it is the traditional dystopian government-eyes-and-ears everywhere system, like the omnipresent CCTV network in the UK that’s been growing since 2013, and existing government surveillance cameras that can be made better spies by adding AI

But it’s not just the government. We’ve exchanged privacy for convenience on a mass scale — the convenience of facial recognition, smart home assistants, and video doorbells, to name a few. And we’ve also traded away our privacy for curiosity’s sake as well, via home DNA tests, silly data-harvesting quizzes et. al. All government agencies need to do is apply the right pressure to companies, or more disturbingly, when companies pressure law enforcement to use their products as Ring (owned by Amazon) has done. Behemoths like Google and Amazon have more information about you than government entities could have ever collected by themselves. That can be a problem, since facial recognition has inherent biases that can result in false positives.





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In some cases, when you willingly give up your own privacy, you sacrifice other people’s as well. It seems like most of the concern is over the security of private info; that we’re not too concerned that Facebook has detailed information about our entire lives, even if we’re not on it. And if you do have a Facebook account, you had to worry about Cambridge Analytica harvesting your data without your consent and using it for political ads.

Outside of Facebook, there were random humans listening to conversations with Alexa or even worse, data apps that facilitated cyberstalking. But we haven’t reached peak privacy giveaway yet, so we’ll probably see more right-to-privacy issues exposed on the scale of the ones Edward Snowden unleashed about the US’ NSA activities in 2013.





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Unto the breach!  

We only care about the security of our info to a certain extent, because we seem to have begun to accept data breaches as the new normal. Oh, I need to change my password again. Oh, the breached company’s offering a free year of credit monitoring. And why not? From 2010 through 2018, breaches have included high-profile names including Yahoo, Adobe, Equifax, Sony PlayStation Network, Target, LinkedIn, Marriott and Facebook

We can’t even trust hardware we never think about anymore; when was the last time you (as a security nonprofessional) thought about the vulnerabilities of a CPU before we found out about the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities afflicting all Intel and AMD CPUs fabricated since 2012? Vulnerabilities that continue to bypass the fixes. Sometimes it’s intentional and malicious, like Russians hacking to influence the 2016 US election, but many are simply due to human security holes. Just search on “left exposed on server” and you’ll find MoviePass, Facebook, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the US, loan apps in China and more. And those are only from the past few months. 


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Social media’s dark side

When people talk about the hate-filled side of “the Internet,” they’re really talking about social media and social forum-type sites. Social media isn’t evil by itself — it can be incredibly empowering, such as when it led to a revolution and the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But we’ve also seen social media bring out the worst in people. We live in an age where you can be doxxed or find yourself at the receiving end of intense hatred for expressing a view that makes some group of trolls mad.

Over the past decade, social media has enabled the spread of that hatred at an unprecedented rate. It’s been used to glorify and incite violence. It’s seen political discourse and policymaking reduced to 240 characters worth of unintelligibility (and we thought sound bites were bad!). Heading into the next decade, we’ve even got a new tool for spreading lies: deepfakes.


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