Bad software sent UK postal workers to jail
April 24, 2021 8:34 AM   Subscribe

For the past 20 years, UK Post Office employees have been dealing with a software called Horizon, which had a fatal flaw: bugs that made it look like employees stole tens of thousands of British pounds. This led to some local postmasters being convicted of crimes, even being sent to prison, because the Post Office doggedly insisted the software could be trusted. After fighting for decades, 39 people are having their convictions overturned. More than 2,400 claims for damages have been filed so far.

The article (from The Verge) has links to many more sources.
posted by DirtyOldTown (28 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
posted by hippybear at 8:41 AM on April 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

What a fucking nightmare, sent to jail because of some shitty software bugs. These people are owed much.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:51 AM on April 24, 2021 [19 favorites]

> Bad software sent postal workers to jail, because no one wanted to admit it could be wrong

I'm familiar with this dynamic (although not to anything like this scale and severity); managers whose job it is to make decisions like this fuck up and make a disastrous choice, deny there's a problem because doing so would be an admission that they fucked up, cover up or minimize the problem as much as they can for as long as they can, and then ideally retire or get promoted to a higher position in management before the shit really hits the fan and they can be held accountable. Meanwhile, workers suffer and are told they're the problem.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:55 AM on April 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

A family member was running a small village post office when the software was introduced. It was then that they decided to stop running a small village post office. Good call it turns out.

The heavy-handed bureaucracy of the UK post office towards employees was horrible in other ways too. Very dated it was.
posted by mdoar at 10:14 AM on April 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

I can't believe the legal system just went with "yes, hundreds if not thousands of postmasters have suddenly starting stealing tens if thousands of pounds" as a 'beyond reasonable doubt' explanation of the situation in the first place.
posted by Dysk at 10:20 AM on April 24, 2021 [19 favorites]

I'd say it wasn't bad software that sent people to jail here. It was bad audit procedures, bad support procedures, and prosecutorial misconduct.

The software was bad, but it was not bad in ways which was producing spurious evidence of fraud. It was making accounts unbalanced without good audit trails at all (which notably doesn't point to the subpostmasters initiating fraudulent transactions --- all the transactions actually logged in the system were clean!), whereupon support would swoop in and manually tweak things until they were right (sometimes producing very unusual transaction records which did suggest malfeasance). And the prosecutors ran with this pile of "money is missing, but there's no record of how or why" and decided the people with their hands on the keyboard had to be at fault, even though there was no evidence actually implicating them.

There's a comment on the last thread walking through the specific series of events which led to a $1000 shortfall. The computer itself just didn't process the transaction at all; it took active mucking around by outside support staff to make it look like something really suspicious had been done.
posted by jackbishop at 10:22 AM on April 24, 2021 [15 favorites]

for the ones who took their own lives because of this.

The statement that Horizon was made by Japanese company Fujitsu … is factually correct, but maybe the right term is culturally wrong.

The arm of Fujitsu that produced Horizon is the successor to the UK company International Computers Limited (ICL). ICL was the company of government computing in the UK. While they started out with some very innovative technologies, they were forced into a series of mergers by the UK government to ensure that the country had a distinct computing industry that was separate from IBM. ICL's computers ran British banks and governments, and ICL's software divisions were always a safe bet for any government tender. The company became so tied to government work that their systems completely failed to be usable by smaller organizations. The company was very bureaucratic because their client(s) were bureaucratic. ICL weren't nationalized, but like many of the large UK plcs of the last century, were in effect government-run, since they existed at the whim of government policy.

Fujitsu, initially a component supplier to ICL, acquired the company over the span of a couple of decades. ICL's government contracts were incredibly lucrative, and Fujitsu worked hard to make the changes appear minor. The old boy's network at ICL remained in place. UK corporate computing always had an obvious but unspoken glass ceiling: men were managers/programmers, women were punch operators. ICL inherited this culture from government agencies like the GPO, where until alarmingly recently, a women could either be employed or married: not both. This whole messed-up exclusionary culture is studied at length in Mar Hicks's book “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing”.

It's no surprise, then, that the hide/deflect/deny UK government culture had infected ICL/Fujitsu. The software couldn't possibly be wrong, it must be the menial users who are either doing it wrong and/or stealing stuff. How dare a postmistress from Hull be right and our boffins (top blokes from Oxbridge, I'm sure) be wrong? The whole Horizon affair is as much of a scandal as algorithmic bias infecting tech as a whole. Its somewhat telling that Horizon, initially planned to be a government-wide PFI-funded Tory scheme to digitize benefits and eliminate fraud in the mid 1990s, ended up being a symbol of Tory government fraud and oppression in the 2020s. I'm surprised that the privatized Post Office is taking any responsibility for this.

(I used to think ICL were cool. I mean: bright orange computers! commission a prog-rock album for a computer release! My dad worked for them, and their precursor ICT. He went on to run a computer bureau for a nationalized port, of course using an ICL machine. My first computer interaction was with the bright orange operator console of an ICL 2900 in the late 1970s But looking back, the memories become problematic — why didn't any of the punch operators [all the best and brightest young women from the local high school] ever go on to be programmers in the glass-walled computer room? What exactly did my dad mean when he came home ashen from firing a male programmer who'd been “chasing” one of the women from the punch room? What else was systematically unfair besides the dockyard management insisting the monthly company prize draw software be “fixed” to ensure that known union agitators never won? This was all 40+ years ago, in a little corner of computing in Scotland long gone away, and yet it still doesn't sit right with me.)
posted by scruss at 10:24 AM on April 24, 2021 [51 favorites]

Wow, scruss, that’s really sad. Not least because there’s the constant ghost of a much better path with the same computers and different principles.
posted by clew at 10:33 AM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The whole Horizon affair is as much of a scandal as algorithmic bias infecting tech as a whole.

With concrete costs for innocent people that can be more directly linked to this fuckup, I'd posit it should be a bigger scandal.
posted by Dysk at 10:49 AM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

There absolutely should be people serving prison sentences for this, but it's not the people who ran post offices.
posted by reynir at 10:54 AM on April 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'm annoyed at how all the reporting and discussion of this event talks about "the software sent them to jail". No. A court sent them to jail. A judicial system and a bunch of people and employers acting in bad faith sent their employees to jail. A buggy software system written by bad software engineers was a contributor, sure, but it takes a system to send someone to jail.

Pinning it on the software is a way to absolve personal responsibility. The folks who use and oversee the software are responsible. So are the programmers, although per usual I bet they never get held accountable.

The lawyer for the victims gets this; he characterizes the post office as "an organisation that not only turned a blind eye to the failings in its hugely expensive IT system, but positively promoted a culture of cover-up and subterfuge in the pursuit of reputation and profit"
posted by Nelson at 10:55 AM on April 24, 2021 [33 favorites]

Our inquiry into private prosecutions was prompted by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The Commission wrote to us after it had referred a record number of convictions, all stemming from prosecutions brought by the Post Office, to the courts.

posted by Lanark at 11:02 AM on April 24, 2021

So despite over 900 people being falsely prosecuted and convicted, they are of the opinion that the system generally works well and has sufficient safeguards in place. What the hell?
posted by Dysk at 11:07 AM on April 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

...there’s the constant ghost of a much better path with the same computers and different principles.
This phrase is pretty much the history of Industry in the UK since the 1950s.
posted by fullerine at 11:59 AM on April 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yes, the software may have been crap but all decisions about allocating blame and prosecuting the postmasters were made by people.

It would be nice to believe that the managers responsible would be dragged through the courts and either sent to prison and/or lose their houses to pay compensation. Won't happen though.
posted by epo at 12:28 PM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Private Eye magazine has been on this story like flies on shit for years, here's their special report. [PDF] The problem is not software, it's wetware. And so far none of the humans responsible for this grievous mismanagement & coverup have been punished in any way for their malfeasance.
posted by chavenet at 12:37 PM on April 24, 2021 [15 favorites]

The Eye has an occasional podcast (which is generally fascinating) called Page 94. Here's the episode about the scandal, from February 2020. I expect the next one, due next month, will cover the denouement.
posted by Grangousier at 1:14 PM on April 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is a fucking nightmare.
posted by wuwei at 1:53 PM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The core plot of Brazil is a bureaucratic coverup of a literal bug in the computer that caused them to arrest and sentence the wrong man. It was intended to be a farcical lampoon, not an instruction manual.
posted by pwnguin at 2:02 PM on April 24, 2021 [15 favorites]

The BBC did a great series of podcasts on this topic.
posted by Stark at 2:06 PM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've been listening to the BBC radio series about it, and it is so shocking. The thing I keep wondering about ( and maybe I'm cynical) is that, seen one way, the Post Office was making a lot of money off these people. The Sub Post Masters were making up the difference between their real revenue and the false revenue with their own money. Many re-mortgaged their homes, took out bank or pay-day loans, maxed out credit cards, or emptied their life savings to "pay back" the money they were accused of stealing. That amount was never actually stolen... Which means the Post Office must have got a very significant amount of money from these people over the years. The super cynical part of me wonders if someone realized this early on and decided to go with it, because it was a revenue stream. Either way, the Post Office is the one that fraudulently obtained huge amounts of money from hundreds of individual franchisers.
posted by EllaEm at 2:24 PM on April 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

> We are already taking the first steps towards migrating off the Horizon system for good, in favour of a modern, cloud-based system which postmasters will find more intuitive and easier to operate.
> This will not be easy – it will after all be among the biggest, if not the biggest, IT roll-out in the country when the time comes.

Good news everyone: we have carefully analysed the root causes and organisational culture that led to our gigantic £1 billion IT project delivering a system that wasn't fit for purpose -- to the degree that we felt it necessary to cover up the defects and pin the blame for our financial losses on local postmasters -- and concluded that the path forward is to commission another gigantic IT project. The biggest and best one ever!

hundreds of IT outsourcing bodyshops / well-connected system integrators / boutique cloud migration consultancies everywhere cry out with joyful greed, and rush in dragging the biggest buckets they can carry to capture the rain of cash
posted by are-coral-made at 5:21 PM on April 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

There was a similar UK scandal a few years before this one. It involved phantom ATM withdrawals. Some people who complained about phantom withdrawals were successfully prosecuted for attempted bank fraud, because a bank's computers couldn't possibly be wrong.
posted by monotreme at 8:23 PM on April 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

My friend Karl Flinders, in Computer Weekly, has been covering this story since 2009, and has paid no small part in keeping it in the public eye. There's a link at the bottom of this article to the complete timeline of stories.
posted by grubby at 10:00 AM on April 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells has resigned from boardroom positions at retailers Morrisons and Dunelm as well as her role as a Church of England minister.
posted by Lanark at 2:11 AM on April 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I hope they successfully sue for massive damages

I don't disagree with you, but the trouble is that the Post Office is owned by the UK Government, which means that any damages awarded will ultimately be paid by UK taxpayers. The board-level execs whose decisions created this debacle will skate as usual.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:44 AM on April 26, 2021

I don't disagree with you, but the trouble is that the Post Office is owned by the UK Government,

Who were the organisation that ultimately fucked up, in convicting the postmasters. The Post Office Ltd brought the prosecutions, but the courts convicted.
posted by Dysk at 6:20 AM on April 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

The thing that got me was learning that each of the sub-postmasters affected were initially told that they were the only ones. They were, at the time, dealing with several times the usual number of prosecutions.
posted by plonkee at 7:34 AM on April 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

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