Culture, Plain Speaking, Politics

When Computers Rule

“I wanted to kill myself. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I definitely would have killed myself.”

Thus does Seema Misra begin the story of her three-year odyssey as a sub-postmistress working for Britain’s Royal Mail.

She was approved to open a postal station in her small Surrey shop in 2005, and was set up with supplies and a Horizon computer terminal to use for Post Office business. (A word to the wise: the Post Office in the UK operates differently than it does in the States, and there are over 11,000 of these “sub-post offices,” usually operating out of small general stores, chemist shops, or newsagents, dotted all over the country, often in out-of-the-way villages (think Agatha Christie mysteries) which would otherwise be underserved. The people who run them are contractors, not employees of the Royal Mail. And the post office itself is used for purposes unheard of in the US–you can go there to pay your utility bill, perform banking transactions, and get your welfare payments, as well as buy stamps and send off letters and packages.)

It wasn’t long before Seema began to notice discrepancies in her end-of-day reconciliations, between what she thought should have been the total Post Office business done, and what the computer report spat out. In every case, the computer report indicated that there should have been more money applied to the account than indicated when Seema took the receipts and transaction history and totaled them up manually. Some days, the discrepancies were in the £100 range. Sometimes, thousands.

She reported this as a problem both to Horizon (Fujitsu), and to her supervisors at the Post Office. They advised her that she was liable for the discrepancies, because she’d signed a contract promising to make good any losses. So she began feeding profits from her store into the Royal Mail system to make up the difference and balance the Post Office account. She kept reporting the problem. They kept insisting the trouble was with her.

She was suspended from her job with the Royal Mail in January of 2008, when an audit found a discrepancy of £74,000 in her accounts (about $100K in today’s money).

And after a court summons and a guilty verdict, Seema Misra was sent to jail where she spent months in the company of the dregs of society. While she was on the inside, her husband was repeatedly beaten up by neighbors who called his wife a thief. The family lost their home, and her record as a felon made it difficult for them to rent, and subsequently for her to get another job.

This year, for the first time, and as the result of an October 2020 statement by the Royal Mail that it will “not contest” the efforts of people such as Seema to get their convictions overturned (“bally decent of the old chaps” I can just about hear Bertie Wooster saying), there is hope for Seema and her family.

There are over 1,000 people like Seema Misra in the United Kingdom, victims of what some have called “the worst miscarriage of justice in the legal system in modern British history.” It’s an unbelievable horror of a tale, and I won’t belabor it (there are a number of links at the bottom of this post, if you’d like to read more), but in a nutshell, the facts are these:

  • In 1995, the Royal Mail instituted a pilot program at several offices involving a computerized “smartcard” system to automate the payout of welfare benefits to prospective recipients and reduce fraud (LOL).
  • The rollout failed (imagine my surprise) and the project was scrapped after an expenditure of about three-quarters of a billion pounds, but from its ashes arose something called “Horizon,” a point-of-sale” (POS–LOL again) system for Royal Mail transactions.
  • Problems with balancing and reconciliation were quickly noted and publicized.
  • The IT vendor (Fujitsu) and the Post Office repeatedly insisted that each case was unique, that “no-one else” was reporting similar problems (this was false and they must have known this at the time), and did nothing to help its contracted employees.
  • The Post Office failed to find a problem with the software, commissioned an audit, cancelled the audit a day before it was due to be published, and concluded that there was no systemic problem with the Horizon system.
  • Between 2009 and 2013, the Post Office began to admit that, yes, there were bugs in the system, but that the system was “working as designed” (😱) and was fit for purpose. It strenuously denied reports by sub-postmasters and postmistresses that it appeared as if transactions were being altered “after the fact” by Fujitsu technical support, and insisted that such things simply weren’t possible.
  • Investigative audits began to track errors in the software, including the fact that it wasn’t tracking certain transactions, was recording some transactions in duplicate, and was disadvantaged in some cases by old or inadequate equipment. The Post Office dismissed most of these claims, insisted that the problem was inadequate training, and that, instead, the bulk of the problem lay with the sub-postmasters and postmistresses who were, in a word, thieves.
  • At some point, the audits and investigation concluded that it was, despite the Royal Mail’s insistence to the contrary, entirely possible that employees at Horizon/Fujitsu could have intervened and changed the data unbeknownst to the postmasters/mistresses, and that, in fact, they likely had.
  • An organization, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, got things somewhat organized, and secured backing to reduce the fear (which many of the individuals had) that they couldn’t possibly contest the charges because if they did they’d, by law, be required to pay the Post Office court costs. This may have been the moment when the tide began to turn.

Meanwhile, The Royal Mail launched an aggressive campaign against people reporting the discrepancies and difficulty balancing, and over the course of several years, hundreds were sent to jail. Hundreds were disgraced. Many were placed on suicide watch. At least one committed the act. Hundreds of singles and couples who’d taken on the Royal Mail commission as a fillip for their retirement income were embarrassed, humiliated, shamed and disgraced. In many cases, they were jailed and permanently branded “thief.”

In December of 2019, in a blistering 400-page ruling, a Judge ruled that “bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system was the cause of the discrepancies which had ruined hundreds of people.” (550 of them were part of the class-action lawsuit which led to this ruling.) He also opened the door to the idea that the software defects should allow the defendants/convicted felons the right to petition to have their guilty verdicts overturned.

And that is what has led to the Royal Mail’s generous decision that it will “not contest” the efforts of people like Seema Misra to get their lives back after more than a decade in Hell. Jolly big of them. (Each “convict” has to petition individually, and have the case heard and the verdict rendered.)

Meanwhile, there’s a £58 million class-action settlement which, by the time all the fees are paid, means that participants in the suit will receive a pittance for their victimization, bullying, and terrorization by the all-powerful State.

It’s an absolutely sickening story. And now, for the rest of it. Warning–Strong opinions follow:

Almost nothing fills the heart of the person in IT-World with dread so much as the thought of being on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from hundreds, maybe even thousands, of the great unwashed in Realville, complaining or explaining why the marvelous and perfect system he envisioned, coded, tested, and filled with the bells and whistles of his dreams, isn’t satisfactory and may even–quelle horreur, c’est impossible!–have a few defects. Not only is there the obvious ego problem, there’s often a language problem as well, as the computer-illiterate (not in any way intended as a slur) struggle to communicate with someone speaking from the rarefied heights of of Technology Privilege.

It’s not dissimilar, and I think the chasm is about as wide, to the language difference between the sexes, and I am sometimes reminded (as I often seem to be) of an old Punch cartoon from the late 1950s or early 1960s. (Probably the latter, since I must have been old enough to appreciate it and remember it.) A well-dressed lady–think Maggie Thatcher, or Margo Leadbetter (for fans of the old BBC series Good Neighbors)–is trying to explain to the garage mechanic, in as much detail as she can, exactly what’s wrong under the ‘bonnet’ of her vehicle. He’s standing there in his filthy overalls, scratching his…umm…belly and rolling his eyes, and probably imagining what fun he’s going to have telling this story to his mates at the pub, and she’s saying, I’m sure in a very Received Pronunciation sort of way: “It sounds like hairpins rattling around inside a plastic cup.”

The first response of our hero in IT-World (I was one, so absolute moral authority, and yes I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. But those of you who’ve lived the dream, tell me if I’m not right over the target) to such a presentation, and to an often inelegant and inaccurate attempt to describe the problem, is to try to get rid of these people as quickly as possible so he can get back to WoW or whatever was occupying his time prior to the nuisance call, and so she can get back to her knitting. There are a few tried and tested responses to help this along:

  • “Is that so? I’ve never heard of that before.”
  • “I can’t replicate your problem.”
  • “You must be doing it wrong.”
  • “No one else is reporting your problem.”
  • “Who told you to do that?”

And finally, the big guns:

  • “You must be mistaken. That’s just not possible. The computer isn’t wrong.”

Case closed. One of, or a collection of, these responses will probably get rid of more than half of the first-time callers who slink back to their desks in shame and promise themselves never to try something like that again.

If the person in Realville is persistent, isn’t intimidated into silence and a sense that she must have screwed up somehow, and if she really believes there’s something wrong (and not with her), where does she go next? To her supervisor, of course! Except that he’s probably not much of a computer-person either, and there’s nothing he wants to hear less than that the system he and his company recommended and spent upwards of £1 billion to purchase, and years to implement, isn’t doing the job and may actually be distorting and corrupting the books. A moment’s thought, and it will occur to our doughty corporate warrior that calling the complainant a liar or a thief, and ordering her to make up the difference from her own pocketbook will probably shut her up, and if it doesn’t, at least it will move the problem out of his jurisdiction and into someone else’s.

And so they did.

Full disclosure: I knew nothing of this story until last week, when my sister and I were discussing the daily sausage-factory of new reports over possible election malfeasance in the United States. I remarked that “nothing would surprise me anymore.” And I also (full disclosure again) said that as as a person of IT privilege (as both I and my sister are), I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult than trying to sort out the sheep from the goats (something else I have some experience with) when it came to the facts of the matter as explained by hundreds, if not thousands of folks who don’t share our obsession with binary and logical exactitude, and who were trying to describe their interaction with voting machines. She asked me if I’d heard about the Royal Mail story. I had not. But now I have.

And so have you.

Crimenutely, folks. I’m a firm believe in Hanlon’s razor. But, whether it’s malice or incompetence, it deserves to be looked at. And sometimes the inarticulate little people who are at the point of the spear have more real information than we do. This is a lesson I learned early-on in my illustrious (LOL) IT career. It stood me in good stead, and I don’t think it ever, ever let me down.

Let’s hope that the truth, whatever it is (and I don’t know what the truth is–and, to be clear, neither do you) doesn’t take 15 years to come out because some of us are too cowardly, too invested in the status quo, or just too lazy, to engage with it.

Computers can, indeed, be wrong. We can talk more about whose fault that is, some other time.

Further reading:

1 thought on “When Computers Rule”

  1. Another truly horrifying aspect of this travesty is that without the much (and often deservedly) maligned BBC, and cheeky Twitter banter between a local BBC journalist and Seema Mistra’s taxi-driver husband, we might never have heard about this disgraceful situation.

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