By Hannah Burns: Columnist
Plastered over our papers and peppering our news outlets, the Post Office Scandal has been the focus of the British media this January. If by chance you missed the story, a fault in Fujitsu’s Horizon software ‘regularly showed that money…had gone missing from Post Office accounts’ (CNN Business).
Most coverage has zoned in on the completely human side of the story, and rightly so, the scandal has had a profound effect on all involved.
The problems which resulted from the shortfall of money in the accounts lead to incorrect convictions of workers. It caused ruptures in the affected Post Office workers’ daily lives, finances, health and careers.
Some workers took money out of their own personal accounts to cover the shortfalls, and others developed illnesses, the scandal has even been linked to premature deaths of the postmaster workers. The fault and failings lie with layers of deceit, disbelief and institutional issues. Purposeful ‘obstruct[ion]’ of the truth was enacted by both the Post Office and Fujitsu, in a plethora of areas, which compounded the wrongful allegations, altering lives forever.
The complicity of these two companies is shocking, and this case has captured so much attention due to the extent of the lies and manipulations, and the willful punishment of innocent workers. The Post Office Scandal has certainly brought to light, especially considering the 20 year timescale, how blame-shifting and systematic persecution of innocent parties still has a place within corporate, and public institutions
At the core of this problem is a technological issue, a program which was found, in the 2019 Civil case, to have significant ‘bugs, errors and defects’, which was known internally within Fujitsu since 2010.
Bugs, errors, defects, poor-programming, one misplaced comma, all of these things can have a rippling, crescendoing effect on not only the code but on lives, as seen by this case. So surely faults in systems should be instantly fixed by the responsible parties? Well, the logical answer would be yes.
But, of course, technological issues (and the existence and admission of) have a huge financial impact on the companies both using and selling the technology. It’s no secret that having public scandals, and internal business issues is bad for the bottom line of corporate businesses.
Company value and reputation can drop in seconds now, one wrong move can destroy a profit margin. Especially in our increasingly plugged in world. Remember when Coca Cola immediately lost 1.6% market value (equivalent to $4 billion) because Cristiano Ronaldo moved a bottle away in a press conference?
Press now comes as an immediate ping, not a paper the next morning. Companies are under pressure to perform, both financially, and with their public image too. It is perhaps not a surprise, therefore, that both the Post Office and Fujitsu decided to keep their skeleton in the closet for so long.
Let’s pivot and examine more closely the financial aspect of why Fujitsu knowingly avoided justice, and allowed the faulty Horizon system to stay active for so many years.
A recent statement from a Fujitsu software developer, Gerald Barnes, who raised concerns about the program was ignored. He says that ‘the company did not properly fix the problem because it would have been too expensive and time-consuming’.
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And, perhaps even more insultingly, paying out large bonuses of $55 billion to the company executives simultaneously. There’s the 2008 financial crisis, where banks and ratings agencies conspired, and the global economy crashed, leaving people on the streets. More recently, Uber attempted to cover up a data leak of 57 million people’s personal details, a breach that has serious financial and legal repercussions.
With the Post Office scandal, as Fowler concisely summises, all involved parties were ‘happy to let sub-postmasters pay the price for Fujitsu to keep making profits’.
These people lose more than money, they lose personal details, cyber safety, financial security, family, opportunities, and even their lives as a result of the enormous stress from these catastrophic events.
All these stories, although years, sectors and countries apart, have a common thread. Financial gain and brand image as a priority, while those below are unknowingly involved with corporate titans that do not do due diligence. These people lose more than money, they lose personal details, cyber safety, financial security, family, opportunities, and even their lives as a result of the enormous stress from these catastrophic events.
It’s interesting that Barnes points to ‘time-consuming’, as a source of the issue. Indeed, time is equivalent to money in business, if a project needs to be completely re-done, the hours double, and the profits halve (if we’re being mathematically reductive). But arguably, there’s more to it than that. There is a trade-off, fixing old problems may impede creating new products, and may choke growth.
Now, with the rapid digital evolution of companies, businesses will continue ‘using new technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing to drive growth, streamline operations and increase competitive edge’ (Forbes).
There seems to be a palpable anxiety in the financial sector about the new next tech. But at what cost? A world where being behind is worse than being precise could be extremely dangerous.
And, if companies continue to treat consumers as just another number on a spreadsheet, and fail to put time into their tech, the real people that lie behind those profit/loss gross/net numbers will get hurt. Ethically, corporate businesses should not only put time into fixing existing problems (of course) but also into continued conscientiousness of the safety and viability of their future systems.
Covering up is not enough. Fujitsu may have saved time and money and face over the last 20 years but it has done untold damage to the implicated Post Office workers who were relentlessly pursued. Compensation talks between Fujitsu and the UK government are now underway but the cut corners have already left their mark.
It will be interesting to see how the bonds between the technology race, finance and moral ethics continue to develop and interact. Just recently, the Financial Times has placed generative AI systems as its top 2024 technology trend to watch.
Despite it being known that generative AI produces sometimes ‘erratic results’ and often breaches copyright, and produces misinformation, it is climbing into the financial spotlight. Where will corporations go with this technology? And what future human impacts could it have?
Whilst there is no way of knowing, hopefully, companies will start to take a more responsible approach to how they view their technological business practices.
AI or no AI, financial institutions must begin to weigh ethics and mortality alongside profit to help prevent the endangerment and suffering of normal people such as the Post Office postmasters.
Despite it being known that generative AI produces sometimes ‘erratic results’ and often breaches copyright, and produces misinformation, it is climbing into the financial spotlight.
Hannah Burns is a freelance writer, from copy to creative writing. She's particularly interested in what makes humans tick, the behaviour, beliefs and lives of others. In her spare time she works on her blog, goes to funk music events and learns Spanish.