A TV programme is not usually the subject of this blog. What is occasionally the subject of this blog is the application of IT and the real human impact it has. People like me got into IT with a view to the betterment of society. I am not a TV watcher myself but after being asked many times about the Mr Bates vs The Post Office I decided that I would take the time watch it to understand the content of it.
The programme rightly focuses on the human impact of the scandal. Whilst the technical explanations for Horizon’s failings are not explained in great detail there are some points pertinent to the IT industry.
The Software Is Robust?
This claim is made by the then head of the post Office Paula Vennells in a phone conversation. This is a problematic claim to make; all software has the potential to contain bugs. As above the programme does not go into great depths regarding the technical aspects of the Horizon IT system but issues with multiple POS terminals and a PIN pad are raised.
The IT industry should always assume room for error within a system and the processes by which people use it. Concerns and patterns of issues should have been picked up by both Fujitsu and the Post Office long before this became a national scandal.
There one particular theme running throughout the programme which is of remote access to systems. Remote access is a normal part of supporting modern IT systems however in the case of the Post Office, Fujitsu and Horizon things went badly wrong.
It is explained in the programme that Fujitsu employees made remote connections to Post Office branch systems and made “corrections” without the knowledge of the sub-postmasters. Under no circumstances should remote access be made to a system be made without consent. The results of the remote access session should be recorded and any corrective action made to a ledger should be made under an administrative or support account so that the action is not logged as the user reporting the fault instead.
It is inevitable that as a result of the programme that the idea of remote access to systems will be challenged more however given the trade off between rapid support and information confidentiality, accuracy and legitimacy I would expect we are in a fully “remote accessible” world.
The use of Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are brought up at several times in the programme. In the case of the Horizon system they were used by the Post Office to prevent victims of the scandal from discussing their settlements with sub-postmasters. The ethics of NDAs continue to be an issue for the industry. Whistleblowers should always be empowered and protected by law to ensure that they are able to raise issues to their employer or the authorities.
Lack of Training & Support
In the programme one of the victims Jo Hamilton states that she is no confident with either technology or accountancy. There is another lady later on in the series who joins the JFSA group and reports issues with the Horizon system reporting losses when the power is repeatedly going out at her branch.
In the case of both of these victims this highlights the lack of support given to the sub-postmasters for using the system which is supposed to help them run a Post Office. There is also a constant theme raised in the programme over helpline staff telling victims that “they are the only ones having this problem”.
I have often thought that by labelling someone a “user” outside of a design context is problematic. We often use words in IT that dehumanise. In the case of the Horizon scandal this also underlines why effective training and support should always be available to people using the systems.
The themes discussed in Mr Bates vs The Post Office should be a wake-up call to anyone in the IT industry – regardless of their job description – that cover-ups and complacency with the truth has real human impact. Sub-postmasters have been wrongly convicted as criminals based on faulty evidence of fraudulent accounting and theft. As a result livelihoods have been lost, and some have tragically taken their own lives as a result. It is only the right thing to do that these people should be compensated.
For further reading I recommend Computer Weekly’s Everything you need to know article. As a publication they first investigated the story after receiving letters from Mr Bates and other sub-postmasters. They have done great work tracking the story for a considerable amount of time.
There is a character in the programme Robert Rutherford – I understand to be a compound character of two Second Sight forensic accountants – who when interviewing Jo Hamilton tells her in response to her asking: “can I ask a stupid question?” responds with “There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers”. Damn right.