Tech news stories that ruled headlines in 2015

Tech News 2015

2015 seems to have been the year for tech controversies. To end off the year we’ve gathered some of the biggest tech-related news stories that grabbed the world’s attention. We will cover product releases and the like in another, upcoming post.

Peeple – Yelp for people

There are countless weird apps to download such as “Places I’ve Pooped” or “Cat Paint”. But one particular app, called Peeple, captured the world’s attention like no other in 2015.

The Peeple app caused controversy because it is essentially a way for people to give other people one- to five-star ratings. Of course, this type of format is a great breeding ground for bullying. Anyone could give you a bad review on this app and there was no way of removing your name or rating.

There were numerous cries of outrage from the public and the Peeple creators were forced to appear on television to defend their heavily criticized app. Despite many people hating the app, the creators were adamant that it was a great way for people to build their online reputation, and that there were no grounds for concern about potential abuse. However, under public pressure the creators changed their tune. Now people have to give their permission to be rated and they also have the ability to delete negative reviews. The app is yet to be released.

Volkswagen and the Clean Air Act

In September 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that Volkswagen (VW) cars being sold in America had what is called “defeat software”. This software detects when its carbon dioxide emissions levels are being measured and then changes its performance to improve results. These results obviously did not reflect the emissions given off in normal, everyday circumstances, and thus, were aiming to be deceptive.

It was found that around 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with the “defeat software” to circumvent the Clean Air Act. This act was designed to control air pollution and is one of the most influential environmental laws to be implemented in modern times in America. After Volkswagen’s “defeat software” was discovered, it was noted that the cars were emitting up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide pollutants than is legal according to the Clean Air Act.

The aftershock of the above revelations was huge for Volkswagen. The company apologized for betraying the trust of their users and the chief executive, Martin Winterkom, resigned almost immediately. VW recalled millions of cars and the resulting costs are in the billions. In the time after the discovery Volkswagen’s sales plummeted alongside its stock price.

Google gets a makeover

Google’s logo has remained pretty much the same since its first official appearance in 1997. A few small, barely noticeable changes have been made as the years went by. Some changes include the colours being switched around, the font being changed from Baskerville Bold to Catull, the removal of the shadow and exclamation mark, and flattened lettering.

However, on 1 September 2015 Google’s logo changed significantly. A custom geometric sans serif font, called Product Sans, was created specifically for this logo makeover, and it now also comes in an animated form. According to Google, they wanted a logo that would still feel complete even in the most constrained spaces, hence the multi-coloured “G” that one often sees at the top of one’s browser.

Professional graphic designers were asked what they thought of the new branding. Many agreed that it is a hit because it is cleaner and more modern. They also like the colours that are used. However, some say that it is too childlike, but then again, the same can probably be said of their previous design.

Amazon vs The New York Times

Amazon is the largest online retailer in the United States. It sells countless types of products from electronics and books to apparel and food. Many people who have bought from this e-commerce store likely don’t think about all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to get that package to their door within just one day. In August 2015, the New York Times wrote a scathing article about the poor and heartless working conditions within the Amazon warehouse, based on interviews with both former and current employees as well as their own undercover research.

There have been accusations for years that Amazon doesn’t treat employees well. For example, in 2011 it was reported that workers were collapsing as a result of having to work in temperatures of 38°C (100°F) and suffering from dehydration. In the New York Times article Amazon was attacked for creating unreasonably high standards for employees and showing little sympathy for their workers because of deadlines. It was said that not a day goes by that an employee isn’t seen crying at their desks due to the harsh working conditions.

About two months later Amazon’s Senior VP, Jay Carney, attacked the New York Times online for being dishonest in the way they gathered their information and misusing access given to them. The accusations were also dismissed as being inaccurate and skewed. An online back-and-forth occurred between Carney and Dean Baquet, one of the newspaper’s executive editors, but many see Carney’s response as futile and trying to cover up the truth. However, despite all of the controversy, it has seemingly not harmed Amazon’s reputation and people continue to frequent the online shop every day.

Remote disabling of a Jeep

As part of an experiment, Andy Greenberg (a Wired Magazine journalist) agreed to allow two hackers to remotely hijack his Jeep Cherokee via its Uconnect infotainment system, while he’s driving it. They succeeded very easily and subsequently caused uproar from Jeep owners.

The hackers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, managed to turn on his windshield wipers and air conditioning, manipulate his radio to play music at deafening noise levels, and cut his transmission while driving on the highway. These hackers have an arsenal of features they can employ from abruptly applying the brakes or cutting them completely, to tracking a car’s route via GPS and pinpointing the owner’s current location.

After the video was released showing how vulnerable Jeep owners can be to malicious hackers, Chrysler (the manufacturer of Jeep) recalled 1.4 million vehicles. These were all vehicles that have the Uconnect dashboard computers installed, and thus, have software vulnerabilities that leave it open to hacking. They also took additional measures to block future digital attacks with network-level security measures.

Lenovo’s preloaded malware

In February 2015, it was discovered that Lenovo has been shipping OEM Windows laptops to its customers preloaded with Superfish adware. Superfish installs a self-signed root HTTPS certificate that intercepts web traffic on every website the user visits. This malware falsely represents itself as being the official website certificate. Superfish pokes a giant hole in your browser security and allows anyone on your Wi-Fi network to hijack your browser, steal your passwords, and more.

A security researcher said this is “quite possibly the single worst thing I have seen a manufacturer do to its customer base. … I cannot overstate how evil this is.”

Lenovo’s response to the controversy wasn’t satisfactory to users. They claimed that the malware has been disabled and posed no threat despite many hacks into people’s laptops via this vulnerability. Lenovo also claimed that nothing malicious had happened and that all the security concerns were theoretical.

However, Lenovo eventually published details on how to remove the Superfish software from users’ computers on their website. But even so the company now faces several lawsuits, including a mass action suit scheduled for early 2016.