Computer Power | Horizon Software Scandal

Guest Blogger | Tony Dent, Statistician.

The implications of the Horizon software scandal go far beyond the Post Office and a few thousand maltreated employees.   We have all been the victims of poorly designed and inadequately tested software, although the consequences have been less severe in the majority of cases. 
They are, however, a few other examples of a miscarriage of justice as a result of computer error also leading to false imprisonment and there are many cases where business owners have lost their livelihood (and their homes) as a result of special ‘risk’ software developed by banks.  Finally, of course, there is the example of the economic crash of 2008/9 resulting from the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Wasn’t that largely brought about by computer algorithms? 

How many millions suffered as a result?

Because of my interest in statistics I was recently asked why no-one had noted the very significant rise in the numbers of Post Office employees accused of theft?  Surely someone, somewhere must have thought this unusual, even unlikely?  Wouldn’t that have called into question the Horizon package?

Unfortunately the reverse is the case; the evidence would have led to a stronger belief in the system, because those responsible would have had no doubts that the infallible computer is now exposing the level of fraud amongst their employees that the previous outdated systems had concealed from their watchful eyes.   This was, therefore seen as a massive benefit of the new system.

How do I know this?

I don’t.

I just know that we accept the idea that things are better when the computer takes over, despite any evidence to the contrary.  Of course, belief in the infallibility of the computer has been virtually enshrined in law since 1999, when the 1984 act of parliament governing the use of computers in evidence was repealed.  Prior to the repeal, computer evidence was only admissible if it could be shown that the computer system was used and operating properly.
As a result of the change the burden of proof shifted from the software supplier/operator to the user, who is charged with providing the evidence of fault.  That is not a simple task for the majority of users and it was certainly beyond the capacity of the users of Horizon.

It is therefore time for a serious rethink of the law; particularly given the potential for error associated with the growth of AI.  Not all developers are to be trusted and not all software is properly tested. 

Posted by Ian Farrar on behalf of Tony Dent, Statistician and supporter of The Micro Business Alliance.


About Ian Farrar

Sales professional, entrepreneur and founder of Far North Ltd, Ian Farrar has over 20 years in global business development roles. With a strong network of influential contacts to call on, Ian has founded, scaled and exited companies in his native North East. Ian also has impressive experience holding non-executive directorships for public and third sector organisations. As a self-confessed Social Evangelist, Ian embraces relationships across many social platforms including podcasting with over 300 interviews.

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