Special Report

The Biggest Corporate Scandals of the Decade

Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images

11. Equifax data breach
> Date: September 2017

Credit reporting agency Equifax announced on Sept. 7, 2017, that an unauthorized third party had gained access to the information of up to 143 million Americans — roughly half the U.S. population. According to a report published in Vice, Equifax may have known about the vulnerability from a security researcher’s warning, but failed to act on it. Information contained in the files accessed by hackers included names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses, and, in about 209,000 cases, credit card numbers.

While the breach led to widespread public outrage, consumers were further incensed by the poor response to the incident. Equifax provided little explanation of the breach, and cybersecurity experts noted that the website Equifax directed customers to learn if their information was compromised was itself a security risk. The site also contained terms of use that, according to some lawyers, may have waived the customer’s right to a class action lawsuit.

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12. CBS sexual harassment scandal
> Date: November 2017-September 2018

One of the defining cultural trends of the 2010s was the widespread organization and empowerment of victims of sexual harassment and assault. Under the banner of the #MeToo movement, millions of victims have broken the silence on their stories of abuse, leading to the ouster of some of the most powerful men in politics and industry, and a measurable improvement in sexual harassment awareness.

One of the largest institutions that faced widespread accusations of sexual misconduct was CBS. Major figures — CEO Les Moonves, longtime anchor Charlie Rose, and executive producer Jeff Fager — lost their jobs after being accused of sexual misconduct, and a number of employees have spoken out about the company’s hostile culture.

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13. Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal
> Date: March 2018

Facebook was often making headlines this decade, and mostly not with positive news. On March 17, 2018, The Guardian and The New York Times simultaneously published exposés alleging that data harvested from over 50 million Facebook profiles by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica were used to help the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. The firm used the data to identify the personalities of American voters and better target them with digital ads. The data were harvested as early as June 2014 through an app developed by a researcher who worked with Cambridge Analytica and who was originally granted access to user information by Facebook for academic purposes.

Within 10 days of the news reports, the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into Facebook’s data practices, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify in front of Congress, and the price of Facebook stock fell 16%. The breach was one of several major scandals that befell Facebook in the 2010s, sowing distrust in the company — 44% of Americans today believe Facebook fosters division in society, according to a recent national survey by Consumer Reports — and furthering the public conversation on data privacy.

14. Boeing 737 MAX back-to-back plane crashes
> Date: October 2018-March 2019

On Oct. 29, 2018, a Lion Air flight departing from Indonesia crashed into the sea just moments after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board. Several months later, on March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. The planes involved in both accidents were Boeing 737 Max jets.

Shortly after the second crash, aviation authorities around the world grounded the 737 Max jet. Boeing ceased production of the aircraft, and is now the subject of several federal investigations and lawsuits. The lawsuit alleges Boeing had foreknowledge of the issue, which was partly what prompted the investigation and contributed to the public outrage. As of December 2019, Boeing has paid more than $9 billion in customer compensation costs related to the halted production. In the second quarter of 2019, Boeing posted a net loss of $2.9 billion, the largest quarterly loss in the company’s history, as the company took a $4.9 billion related to the jet.

Source: Paul Marotta / Getty Images

15. College admissions scandal
> Date: March 2019

With such developments over the decade as rising pay for university presidents, which now often exceeds $1 million, labor strikes by workers building university campuses overseas, and declines in government funding of higher education, it seems higher education in the United States has increasingly become big business.

The college admissions scandal of 2019 might be considered a corporate scandal in light of these trends. Unsealed court documents filed by FBI agents investigating corporate fraud implicated 32 individuals, including officials at eight elite universities: Georgetown, the University of Southern California, Stanford, Yale, and Wake Forest University. The scandal also involved 52 people accused of bribing or cheating their children into college. As of October, seven individuals had received jail sentences of weeks or months.

While the admissions process at universities, particularly elite institutions, has always been partly governed by special favors, the public spotlight and penalties associated with this scandal were unprecedented.