Can we really trust computers? We are relying on them more and more to run our lives because they are quick, efficient and accurate. But they are not always accurate. If you don’t believe me then just ask the former subspostmasters who, in 2009, set up The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group to take on the Post Office. It had wrongly prosecuted them for unexplained accounting losses, with suspicion falling on the individuals rather than the computers.
The scandal, following the introduction of the Horizon accounting system in 2000, has ruined hundreds of lives and the JFSA is demanding £300m to recover the huge court costs they incurred during the Post Office’s “reign of terror”. It claims that the government allowed the Post Office to outspend the subpostmasters up until the point they were vindicated. The courts eventually decided that the Horizon computer system they used was to blame for the accounting shortfalls.
How can this be? How have we got to the point where computers are more trustworthy than people?
Of course some people steal. Even good people do bad things and the best thing to steal, if you are going to, is money. It can be used anywhere. The Post Office needs governance and procedures in place to ensure money doesn’t get taken but it clearly needs steps in place to highlight when the system goes awry.
Computers may be accurate but their programmes sometimes aren’t. These days programmes can run into millions of lines of code and inaccuracies can creep in. They are written by humans with all the unconscious biases and foibles that that entails and tested by like minded people who may not be able to see the errors that have inadvertently been coded.
What then has this got to do with business ethics? Plenty. It is unethical for a software company to not record such discrepancies as possible programming errors during an implementation period. It is unethical for an organization to use its very deep pockets and the law to grind people down into submission. It is unethical that having been found wanting, those let down have to keep fighting to clear their names and put their lives back on track.