The Top 21 Tech Screwups of 2006

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Biggest Mistakes #4-#6

4. AOL: You've Got Manslaughter!

Last July, researchers at AOL thought it would be really cool to release search data for 650,000 or so of its members. By replacing customer names with numbers, they thought nobody would mind. They thought wrong. Among the search terms were names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and other personally identifiable information. Brave bloggers digging through the data came up with even more fascinating search strings, such as "is cocaine good for you?" (user #1766737), "finance me some gold teeth" (user #519928), and "how to kill your wife" (user #17556639). After howls of protest, AOL apologized and pulled the data, but not before some enterprising Netizens downloaded a copy and grafted a search interface onto it. The employees responsible for the gaffe and CTO Maureen Govern are now researching new employment opportunities.

Big Mistake: Blindly releasing customers' personal data.

Bigger Mistake: Confirming our worst suspicions about who's really using AOL.

5. Vista: Missing in Action

Microsoft put a moon-sized lump of coal in PC makers' stockings when it announced that consumer versions of Windows Vista would ship on January 30, 2007. While business customers can now download the oft-delayed OS, PCs with Vista preinstalled won't appear until after the 2006 holiday shopping season.

To appease angry hardware makers, Microsoft announced a voucher program that may or may not provide free upgrades to buyers of new PCs, depending on (a) who sold the system, (b) when it was purchased, (c) what version of XP came with it, and (d) which of the four different flavors of Vista they choose. (Got all that?) Then, of course, you'll have to upgrade the OS yourself. Hey, if it were easy, it wouldn't be Microsoft.

Big Mistake: Microsoft making a major OS upgrade as painful as humanly possible.

Bigger Mistake: Users not switching to Linux or the Mac when they had the chance.

6. Laptop Losers

When privacy guru Robert Ellis Smith called 2006 "the year of the stolen laptop," he wasn't exaggerating. The list of organizations that misplaced computers containing people's personal information is a Who's Who of bungling bureaucracies: Aetna, EDS, Equifax, Ernst & Young, Fidelity Investments, the FTC, ING, the IRS, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Toyota, Union Pacific, the U.S. Department of Transportation (three times), and Verizon, to name but a few.

The big kahuna of laptop losses occurred last May, when a machine containing the personal data of 28 million U.S. military veterans was stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst. (The vets dodged a bullet when the missing laptop was recovered a month later with the database unbreached.) In most cases the data was neither encrypted nor password-protected, allowing easy access for identity thieves.

Big Mistake: Organizations' failing to safeguard customer's names, addresses, and Social Security numbers.

Bigger Mistake: The public's trusting these clowns with our information in the first place.

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