Fujitsu receives contracts despite failures in their Post Office management system
07-04-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
The past decade has seen Fujitsu receive government contracts worth more than £400m despite their massive failure in their Horizon IT management software, resulting in hundreds of Post Office staff being wrongfully prosecuted. What was the Post Office Scandal, how has Fujitsu been involved with contracts, and what does this teach engineers about software reliability?
What was the Post Office Scandal?
In 1999, the Post Office (which was under government ownership) introduced a new accounting software platform developed by Fujitsu to modernise the Post Office. Under normal circumstances, such software would provide Post Office operators (typically called submasters) an easy solution to accounting funds, keeping receipts, and ensuring that all cash is collected. However, the software installation, called Horizon, signalled multiple accountancy errors amongst Post Office operators.
At the same time, Post Office operators also noticed errors in the software and immediately contacted upper management. Most would assume that the response would be “we will look into it” or “it’s just a software error, and thanks for reporting it”, but to the horror of many hundreds of employees, The Post Office believed that the software was functioning as expected and told Post Office operators to make up the shortfall in the accounts or face prosecution.
For more than 10 years, hundreds of Post Office employees were found guilty in court and ordered to pay substantial amounts of money. Some had re-mortgage their homes, some lost their families in the resulting fallout, some were imprisoned, and some committed suicide. Many of these employees were found guilty via confession (keep in mind that those who confessed were told it would reduce their sentence and see no prison time) or via the court’s outright belief that computers never lie.
Fast forward to 2022, and new investigations have shown that the software platform Horizon is riddled with bugs, mistakes, and errors that do indeed produce inaccurate results. After examining past convictions, it turns out that most (if not all) of the employees found guilty were, in fact, innocent, and a massive campaign has seen the over 700 employees take Post Office to court for retribution, compensation, and justice.
Fujitsu continues to receive contracts despite the Post Office scandal
Despite the massive failings of the software produced by Fujitsu, it continues to receive government contracts to develop software solutions for all areas of government, including HMRC. Since 2013 (when the first evidence of Horizon having faults), Fujitsu has obtained more than £400m in contracts. If the newer software systems are found to have similar faults, it could spout trouble for taxpayers both in failed software and a potential accusation for non-payment of tax or incorrect tax calculations.
This is not the first time the government has sunk money into a software project, and it was only a few years ago that the NHS spent £10bn for an IT overhaul which was eventually scrapped in its entirety. When it comes to value for money, governments typically have one of the worse track records, and this is almost always due to the lack of quality controls, lack of a profit incentive, and general lack of care.
What does this teach engineers about software reliability and its effects?
While the Post Office has been forced to pay compensation to the affected employees, the UK government is now considering an investigation into Fujitsu and how it develops software. This investigation could even lead to a conviction of Fujitsu should they be found liable for the mistakes produced by Horizon, but this would greatly depend on the terms of the contract and the actions taken by Fujitsu to fix the software.
The use of computer data in courts has also seen the British Computer Society call on the government to reconsider how data is viewed in court cases. According to the British Computer Society, computer data is often taken as gospel in criminal cases, which can (and does) lead to convictions, but the Horizon platform demonstrates that computer data cannot always be trusted. As such, they are calling for courts to no longer assume that computer data is correct by default.
But what does all of this teach engineers? While ensuring that systems are fault-free is always the top priority, extra care may need to be given if that system can impact people’s lives. In the case of the software system Horizon, it was being used as key evidence to prosecute employees despite the false data being generated, which directly led to the loss of life via suicide.
Of course, engineers cannot always predict how their designs will be used, but considering how courts can use computer data as evidence, ensuring that data integrity is guaranteed and a proper bug handling system is in place may be something that needs to be done more.