10 Biggest Tech Cover-Ups: Shut Up and Act Like Nothing's Wrong

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HP: Watching the Detectives (2006)

HP Chair Patricia Dunn
What does the biggest high-tech company in the world do when it suspects that members of its board are getting too chummy with the press? If you're HP's paranoid former chairwoman Patricia Dunn, you hire gumshoes to tap in to their cell phone records.

In early 2006, private investigators working on behalf of the company called up mobile phone carriers pretending to be members of HP's board, and tracked reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and CNet. They also physically tailed their targets and tried to plant a keylogger on at least one reporter's computer. After Newsweek spilled the beans on the operation in September 2006, criminal charges and civil suits followed. Dunn was done as chairwoman, though she managed to escape prosecution.

HP never managed to plug the leaks--or earn back its once rock-solid reputation.

Dell: Up in Smoke (2006)

Burned Dell laptop
In June 2006, The Inquirer posted a brief video of a Dell laptop spontaneously combusting at a conference in Osaka, Japan. After the video reached the mainstream media, Dell responded by saying that the problem was an isolated incident, unrelated to the tens of thousands of batteries it had previously recalled for overheating.

A month later, another Dell laptop blew up in Illinois. A few days after that, a third notebook self-immolated in Singapore. A 62-year-old man who brought his Dell Inspiron 1300 on a hunting trip in Nevada had to dive for cover when flames coming from the laptop ignited the ammo in his glove box, spraying bullets all over the desert.

Within two weeks, Dell--along with Apple, HP, and other major laptop vendors--announced the largest product recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry. The culprit: 4 million faulty Sony batteries. (Yes, Sony, again.) The laptops were charred, but not nearly as badly as Dell's reputation.

Amazon: Partying Like It's 1984 (2009)

Amazon Kindle
When Amazon reached into users' Kindles in July 2009 to erase e-books they had bought, it couldn't have picked two more appropriate titles: George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. As reporters and bloggers weaved dystopian scenarios about Big Bezos, Amazon backpedaled furiously, explaining that it removed the books because the publisher that sold them didn't have the rights to do so. It also refunded the 99 cents that each book cost.

No matter. For most Kindle owners, this was the first time they realized that the books they thought they purchased really belonged to Amazon, which could remove those titles at any time. That didn't go down well. A week after the company's Orwellian nightmare, CEO Jeff Bezos posted a rare personal apology on Amazon's user forums for the "stupid, thoughtless" way his company handled the situation.

Apple: Hold the Phone--But Not Like That (2010)

Apple Antennagate
When is an iPhone reception problem not an iPhone reception problem? When St. Steven of Jobs says it isn't. Complaints in June 2010 that the iPhone 4's unique external antenna was causing phone calls to drop even more than usual for AT&T customers inspired the terse e-mail response from the savior of Cupertino declaring that users were simply holding the phones the wrong way. Case closed. Only it wasn't.

As "Antennagate" gripes continued, Apple announced that the problem was merely a bug in iOS 4 that caused signal strength to be reported incorrectly. That didn't fly either. When Consumer Reports confirmed that the iPhone 4 dropped calls when touched on its magic spot, Apple was forced to respond ... by offering free rubber bumpers for a limited period of time.

Apple avoided the expense and embarrassment of a total product recall, but St. Steven got a few dings in his halo.

Apple: Do You Follow? (2011)

Apple Location Tracking
Like dropped iPhone calls, the notion that Apple is tracking you by keeping a detailed log of your locations over the past year is really just a figment of your imagination. How do we know this? Because Steve Jobs says so.

But for a week after two researchers publicized their discovery of a data file containing location data for iPhones, Steve Jobs said nothing, and neither did anyone else at Apple. It apparently required a week of radio silence to figure out just what Apple phones were doing. The activity involved recording the locations of cell towers and open Wi-Fi networks in close proximity to the phone's location--complete with time stamps and GPS coordinates, for months on end--even when users told their phones not to, and then storing that data in the clear on users' PCs. Apple insisted that this was not "tracking," and then promised to fix the bugs that were causing phones to, um, not track people.

Sony: PlayStation Network Won't Play (2011)

Sony PlayStation Network outage
Sony showed no hesitation going after hackers accused of jailbreaking the PlayStation 3. If only it had put as much energy into protecting its own network. Beginning April 20, the PlayStation Network and the Qriocity online service went down and stayed down. The cause of the outage was a mystery for nearly a week, until Sony finally admitted that, in the days prior to the outage, its network had been hacked. Worse, the personal information of some 77 million customers may have been exposed--making this intrusion the second worst data breach since the TJX and Heartland hacks.

Nearly two weeks later, the network was still unavailable. Sony execs offered the company's "sincerest apologies" and 30 days of free service to PSN and Qriocity subscribers. As this story was being written, Sony's network was still offline.

And then it happened to Sony again today. Sony Online Entertainment, the company's online gaming division responsible for massive multiplayer gameEverquest, went officially dead in the water.

It wasn't a second attack, so much as a second breach that occurred during the original attack between April 17th and 19th, when it's thought data thieves pilfered unencrypted personal info (but not credit card numbers) from upwards of 77 million members. According to Japan's Nikkei news service, the second breach involved the theft of 12,700 credit card numbers and exposure of the data of perhaps 24,000 users.

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