Most talked-about tech industry controversies

Wikileaks controversy in tech

The tech industry has brought us many great inventions that have made our lives easier and better. It has also seen a number of controversies that caught the attention of the world. Here are some of the biggest scandals to come out of the tech industry:

Sony BMG copy protection rootkit

In 2005 Sony BMG (a record company) came under fire for their use of deceptive, illegal and harmful copy protection measures on approximately 22 million CDs.

Every CD had two pieces of hidden software installed that served as a form of digital rights management. When a user inserted the CD into their laptop or PC, one of the two pieces of software would automatically install itself on the device, without the user’s knowledge. From there on it would modify and interfere with CD copying.

This issue came to light when it was found that these two pieces of unwarranted software were creating vulnerabilities on people’s computers that were being exploited by unrelated malware. Another problem was that there was no mention made of this hidden software in the end-user licence agreement which users are obliged to agree to.

Some of the issues which users experienced because of this software was the creation of security holes that made way for worms and viruses, increased consumption of system resources (due to the software constantly running in the background), system crashes through unsafe stopping and starting procedures, and no way of uninstalling the software once it was there. The software even blocked certain code from legitimate pieces of open-source software, leading to them crashing and not working anymore.

Gamergate

Gamergate is a controversy that has a lot of history behind it. In a nutshell, it all started with the release of an interactive fiction browser game called Depression Quest by independent game developer Zoe Quinn. The game got exceptionally good reviews from gaming journalists, but later started receiving backlash due to a blog post by an ex-boyfriend of Quinn. In the post it was claimed that Quinn had been having a relationship with gaming journalist Nathan Grayson from the website Kotaku, and that this was the only reason her game was getting good reviews.

Even though it was later proven that Grayson had never even written about Depression Quest or Quinn, the backlash kept coming. Quinn began receiving extensive hate mail and eventually had to change her phone number. Anonymous online users launched attacks that included doxing (the leaking of personal information) and the hacking of Quinn’s personal online accounts, as well as rape and death threats. Many of the hate directed towards Quinn was portrayed as ‘concern for journalistic ethics’. However, most of the attacks were gender-based and had nothing to do with protecting the integrity of online journalism.

The hate spread by the supporters of Gamergate was especially prevalent on Twitter, and soon other individuals were targeted, including Anita Sarkeesian, a YouTuber known for her award-winning Tropes vs. Women in Video Games web series. Brianna Wu, an indie game developer, also became a victim after she mocked Gamergate publicly. Both were victims of death threats and doxing, and eventually had to flee their homes as a result.

To this day Gamergate continues. Even at this year’s E3 conference posters branded with the Gamergate hashtag and insulting Anita Sarkeesian were seen on lampposts around the event in Los Angeles.

iCloud photo leak

In 2014 a security breach of Apple’s cloud services suite iCloud led to 500 private and compromising photographs of high-profile celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence being leaked and distributed all over the Internet. These photographs started appearing on controversial image board 4chan and later spread like wildfire to sites like Reddit, Imgur and Tumblr. Other personal information, such as text messages, calendars, address books and phone call logs, was leaked alongside the images. Of course this was embarrassing for both the celebrities involved and Apple.

It was revealed that hackers had obtained these photographs via phishing and brute-force guessing in a targeted attack on account information, and not because of a security vulnerability in the operating system. The photos were ultimately taken from the online storage that serves as a backup for photos from iOS devices like iPhones. The mastermind behind the hack described himself as a “collector” and had been planning it for months.

Even Google didn’t escape the storm that resulted from the leak. A lawyer by the name of Martin Singer sued the company on behalf of numerous unnamed victims for $100 million because the tech giant refused to respond to requests for images to be removed from platforms like Blogger and YouTube.

WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks is a non-profit journalistic organisation founded by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange in 2006. Based in Iceland, it is well-known for publishing secret information, news leaks and classified media from anonymous sources. Within its first year it boasted a database of more than 1.2 million classified documents. Some of the more significant documents include the Iraq War Logs, information about prisoners in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, gunsight footage from a Baghdad airstrike and diplomatic cables.

The reason WikiLeaks is included as a controversy is because the site was seen as harmful to national security and potentially compromising international diplomacy. Certain journalists also criticised the site for being irresponsible with the names of those who leak information. However, some people sit on the other side of the fence and believe WikiLeaks is essential for increasing transparency, assisting with press freedom and enhancing democratic discourse while challenging powerful institutions.

Julian Assange (founder of WikiLeaks) has been under investigation since 2010 due to the leak of US diplomatic and military documents via Chelsea Manning, a US soldier who has since been arrested and imprisoned for 35 years for violating the Espionage Act. In 2012 Assange sought refuge at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, and was eventually given indefinite political asylum by Ecuador.

Silk Road

Silk Road is a now-defunct online black market that formed part of the Dark Web. The Dark Web is only accessible through Tor, software that allows users to browse websites anonymously and without worry of their traffic being monitored.

Silk Road was named after the historical trade route that ran through the Asian continent to connect the East and the West, and was launched in February 2011. The website was controversial since it sold drugs like cocaine, heroin and psychedelics (about 70% of revenue came from these), and items such as banned books or art, jewellery, fake driver’s licences and so forth.

The site caught the attention of the FBI after a Gawker journalist published an article about Silk Road and its mysterious owner Dread Pirate Roberts (a pseudonym based on the main character in the novel The Princess Bride). Eventually the FBI tracked down and arrested Dread Pirate Roberts (now known to be an American named Ross William Ulbricht) in 2013, and the site was shut down soon after. Silk Road 2.0 popped up in 2013 but was shut down by the FBI in November 2014 and its operator arrested.

Ulbricht was indicted on charges of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and murder for hire on six people (even though none of the murders occurred). After a controversial trial due to many important evidentiary documents being discounted and lack of proof that Ulbricht is indeed Dread Pirate Roberts, he was sentenced to life in prison.

The online community has been up in arms over the treatment and vilification of Ulbricht. Many believe he is simply being used as an example to scare others, and that people’s right to online privacy has been violated by the FBI. There are now calls for tailor-made laws to be created for the Internet and user privacy, since many laws are adapted unfairly to suit the special conditions created by modern online life.

For a more in-depth look at how Silk Road originated and what happened to Ross William Ulbricht, see the recently released documentary Deep Web.

Apple and the Chinese factory workers

In December 2014 a BBC Panorama special aired called “Apple’s Broken Promises”. Richard Bilton and other reporters went undercover as workers to film conditions at Apple’s Pegatron factory on the outskirts of Shanghai in China.

Workers were filmed falling asleep while working due to 12-hour shifts (some even worked 16-hour shifts). Workers would have to work for 18 days straight, despite putting in requests for a day off. Overall it was found that Apple had breached publicly stated standards with regard to workers’ hours, ID cards, dormitories, work meetings and juvenile workers.

Workers could also not opt out of working night shifts or working standing up. It was found that workers averaged 55 hours a week. Another controversy was that the tin used in Apple products had been sourced from illegal mines in Indonesia where small children were working, despite promoting ethically sourced minerals.

Apple was in trouble before this programme when it came to light that 14 Chinese factory workers had committed suicide at their biggest supplier, Foxconn, in 2010. Following these suicides Apple had spelt out how factory workers should be treated.

At first Apple refused to be interviewed and simply produced a statement saying: “We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions. We work with suppliers to address shortfalls, and we see continuous and significant improvement, but we know our work is never done.” Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was said to be “deeply offended” by the BBC’s allegations.