The scandals of IT: Tech's year-long bumpy ride

From sexism and racism on social media to influence peddling at Samsung and the Wild West world of distasteful YouTube videos, 2017 left a bad taste for many. Here's a look at eight tech industry scandals that burst into view.

A year of scandal

2017 was a tough year for many. It exposed the dark side of human nature most people have long tried to ignore or deny: Racism, sexism, predatory sexual behavior, and using tech to cheat at things we all agree should be fair. 

It was enough to make 1974, Watergate and the resignation President Richard M. Nixon seem positively quaint.

But there was a bright side to living through the dreck. What we consider scandalous serves as a measuring stick of the current moral climate. Sure, 2017 was a rough year. But the very fact that we consider these things scandalous demonstrates that we've come a long way – even if we have a long way to go.

A hundred years ago, a corporate memo offering a biological reason that women earn less than men, women suing for fair pay, powerful men expecting sex on the job, and criminals mucking around with election results might not have raised eyebrows. But in 2017 -- for a populous that grew up on the utopian future vision of, say, Star Trek -- we are shocked.

We may not yet be our best selves. But mistakes are good teachers. Let’s examine them and learn.I 

Glen Martin | The Denver Post | Getty Images

Blatant discrimination at Google (and elsewhere)

Early in the year, the Labor Department was doing a routine audit of government contractor Google when it discovered a systemic pay disparity between men and women. It asked for more information from the tech giant. And then it started digging deeper, finding a significant variance in pay between male and female employees. Janet Herold, regional solicitor for the agency, told The Guardian back in April, “The government’s analysis at this point indicates that discrimination against women in Google is quite extreme, even in this industry.”

This investigation comes after the department filed a lawsuit against Oracle alleging the company has a systemic practice of paying white male workers more than female, African American, and Asian employees with the same job title.

None of this came as a surprise to many of the women and minorities working in the tech industry. There is now a class action suit against Google by former and current employees and one against Oracle.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Sexist Google memo

As if to mock the accusations of sexism levied at the tech industry and Google, James Damore, a software engineer then working at the company circulated a memo that proposed, among other things, that Google's diversity programs fail because women – neurotic, tending to crumble under pressure, and not ambitious – don’t want this kind of work.

His memo is long, full of misquoted science, unclear of purpose, and it wades clumsily into delicate social territory with ill-formed logic and a failure to understand historical or societal context. Basically, it uses a lot of science to defend his premise that diversity programs, by their nature, are flawed because women are biologically less inclined toward technical work and leadership.

The real scanda? That anyone took this guy seriously.

But they did. The Alt-Right unsurprisingly elevated him to hero status. Google fired him, saying his memo promoted harmful gender stereotypes.

Continuing his failure to understand what is happening around him (he suggests this might be because he is autistic), he is suing Google, claiming that he was fired for speaking truth to power. What’s obvious to everyone else is that he was fired because he dragged his employer into some nasty muck and defended the muck at every opportunity.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Sex scandals aren’t just for Hollywood

As the #MeToo campaign proved, nothing about the sexual harassment scandals that swept through Hollywood and Silicon Valley will surprise you – unless you are a decent man shocked to discover how bad this all is.

The biggest scandal in tech was probably at Uber, where co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down after a blog post from a former employee, Susan Fowler detailed how she was driven from the company by a management-supported culture of sexual harassment.

Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital quit when six women accused him of harassment.

Dave McClure CEO of 500 Startups quit and apologized for being a "creep," which he clearly is, after many women said getting hit on was a routine part of raising money.

Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, took a leave from his startup Essential after a story about a 2014 sexual harassment suit involving a relationship with a subordinate at Google surfaced.

He was not the only one at Google engaging in this sort of thing, though. Google employees say that interoffice liaisons among high-level execs and their subordinates have long contributed to a casting-couch culture at the tech giant.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Racist Facebook ads

Racist advertisers and Russian hackers found a best friend in Facebook. Apparently, if you want to target content directly to specific people – either of a certain race or because of expressed beliefs – Facebook is totally willing to help you do that – even if it’s against the law.

Facebook's targeted ad system touts a feature that lets you deliver ads only to the people who want to see them – or who you want to reach – filtering out or targeting ethnic groups, demographics, and others who have expressed certain ideas or ideologies. It is a largely automated system.

Russian hackers used this tool to influence the 2016 election. They aimed ads, posts and videos at certain groups to influence what Facebook devotees believed was going on in the world. They even created events – in the minds of voters – that never happened in order to create a divisive cultural environment and to alter what citizens believed about candidates, political parties and other people.

Racists could also use the tool to show advertising for housing or vacations only to certain ethnic groups, as ProPublica proved when it bought ads that did just that.

But this isn't just a Facebook problem. This is a machine learning problem, and a complicated one at that. The code built to target these ads has to be complex and nuanced, which may be why ProPublica was able to buy racist housing ads even after Facebook thought it had fixed the problem.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Uber pays hush money to hackers over data breach

Oh, Uber. What goes on over there? The sex scandal, Greyball, and this, too: Covering up a data breach involving the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers.

It gets worse. Uber execs decided the best way to handle a data breach where hackers stole the private information – names, email addresses and phone numbers and the driver’s license numbers of 600,000 U.S. drivers – was to keep it as secret as possible rather than, say, warning customers and drivers to be careful. They took the  stupid a step further by deciding to pay the hackers $100,000 to delete the stolen data and keep quiet about the hack.

Really?

Apparently, Uber CEO-at-the-time Travis Kalanick knew about the attack a month after it happened, but the company didn’t admit to it or the coverup for a year. Kalanick was forced to step down in 2017. But he started 2018 by selling a third of his stake in the company for 1.4 billion.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Men harass women, Facebook bans women from reacting

The sexual harassment scandals of 2017 were shocking…if only because the women coming forward were not fired for speaking up. As any woman will tell you, the harassment was not news. The courage – or the cultural environment willing to listen – was. (Google #MeToo if you doubt that.)

It was surprising -- though it probably shouldn’t be -- that even when horror at the extent of the harassment was sweeping the U.S., Facebook moderators chose to ban a loud group of female comedians posting jokes and commentary responding to it. Often, they banned women from Facebook who were commenting on hostile posts from men – without banning the men who harassed them.

Facebook, of course, claimed this was a technical problem that would be instantly fixed..

The female comedians did a test. Stand up comedian Marcia Belsky found that posting “Men are scum” immediately got her banned from Facebook; posting “Women are scum” did not.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Samsung chief convicted of corruption

Samsung is a big deal in South Korea, an even bigger deal than it is in the U.S. The massive company represents 15% of the nation's entire economy. So an influence peddling and embezzlement scandal involving the president of South Korea as well as the acting head of Samsung – Lee Jae-yong – was huge.

The entire country was riveted. The scandal and subsequent trials played out for months, inciting riots, and bringing down the country’s president.

Lee Jae-yong, who had been running Samsung since his father had a heart attack in 2014, was found guilty of bribing government officials, including the president, for influence and for the government’s support of a merger. He was also convicted of perjury, hiding criminal profits, embezzling, and hiding assets overseas.

Christina Tynan-Wood

Disturbing YouTube videos target kids

If you think setting your child down with a tablet and YouTube Kids is an opportunity for you to take a breather, answer some email, or get some work done, you might want to pay attention to this one.

All sorts of disturbing videos that seemed designed to damage a young child’s psyche managed to slip past YouTube’s automated filters. The videos often take animated characters that kids are familiar with and put them in violent settings.

The company claims that videos that get past its filter are rare.

This is more evidence that we can’t yet trust machines with the jobs we ask of them: Protecting our kids, recognizing the truth, or deciding what’s offensive.