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Sent To Jail Because of a Software Bug 239

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the off-to-the-protein-bank-with-you dept.
First time accepted submitter toshikodo writes "The BBC is reporting a claim that some sub-post office workers in the UK have been sent to jail because of a bug in the accounting software that they use. The Post Office admits Horizon computer defect. I've worked on safety critical system in the past, and I am well aware of the potential for software to ruin lives (thankfully AFAIK nobody has been harmed by my software), but how many of us consider the potential for bugs in ordinary software to adversely affect those that use it?"
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Sent To Jail Because of a Software Bug

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  • Open Source... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    and shit like this doesn't happen or can at least be properly traced back by a third party and gives people the means to defend themselves.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      then what, nothing in OSS land takes responsibility for itself, its free it (sort of works) if it doesnt fix it your self or fuck off

      • Re:Open Source... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by mark-t (151149) <markt@ l y n x.bc.ca> on Monday July 08, 2013 @11:51PM (#44222309) Journal
        But at least the option to fix it yourself actually exists.
        • Except that's a crap line (which I have spouted in the past). Gnash is the perfect example - you have the opportunity to fix it, but the source code is such a pain in the ass to get around that nobody does it. Pick any large project with long standing bugs - why are they long standing? Because nobody wants to fix it - whether for lack of ability, lack of replication of the bug, or fear of the rip-off's license agreement (which is why there are, what, 5 gnash developers on the planet). Pick a large project w
          • by Ash-Fox (726320)

            Gnash is the perfect example - you have the opportunity to fix it, but the source code is such a pain in the ass to get around that nobody does it. Pick any large project with long standing bugs...

            I don't consider Gnash even close to being a large project. OpenOffice.org, Linux Kernel, Ubuntu, KDE, Firefox, Second life.. Sure.

            Pick any large project with long standing bugs - why are they long standing? Because nobody wants to fix it

            I decided to look at the longest standing bug in Ubuntu that was recently clo

            • Funny, but bug 1 wasn't fixed by Ubuntu, and doesn't match the spirit of the discussion (e.g. a bug in software, not sales). There were no tools around to detect and determine the fault. IIRC at the time most techs couldn't reproduce but almost every consumer I ran into (and read about) could. Figures.
          • Re:Open Source... (Score:5, Informative)

            by dkleinsc (563838) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:49AM (#44224233) Homepage

            There's another option that open source gives you that proprietary software doesn't: You can pay someone else to fix it. If it's really that irritating to you, but you really don't want to work on it yourself, why not use some cash to convince a developer to fix your bug? You'll get what you want, the developer will get some cash, and the project will have its bug fixed. Everyone wins.

            What you're really demanding is that volunteers do what you want them to do free of charge. What will actually happen is that volunteers will do whatever they damn well please.

      • Re:Open Source... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by rtfa-troll (1340807) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:45AM (#44222735)

        then what, nothing in OSS land takes responsibility for itself

        Red Hat does. Even Ubuntu will to some extent. Any time you want you can get paid support for OSS and, given the right support contract and money they really will take care of you properly. The definitely take responsibility for the things they promise. (N.B. your two dollar desktop license really doesn't promise much at all).

        Its free it (sort of works) if it doesnt fix it your self or fuck off

        And this is the thing. We have seen before that people were sent to jail for bugs in breathalyzers [arstechnica.com]. In some cases people who claimed these bugs were in courts that demanded source; they were set free. In other cases the proprietary software companies behind the machines managed to get them locked away without a fair trial.

        If the shit hits the fan with OSS you always have one more option and the possibility to approach multiple support suppliers. This won't happen for free and it likely won't be included in any existing agreements, however you may be happy for the chance to spend $15000 on software consultancy and not spend the rest of your life in some US State hellhole. Your proprietary software vendor will be thinking of all the other people that might sue about a bug like that and will never ever help you out of the problem.

        • And this is the thing. We have seen before that people were sent to jail for bugs in breathalyzers.

          I would have thought that an actual blood test would be mandatory for any case that goes to court before any sentence can be passed. If for no other reason, some cough medicines could get you into trouble this way without actually impairing you in any legal sense.

          • by dbIII (701233)
            I thought it already was just about everywhere if only because they want to avoid a costly trial with a loss due to a defence lawyer referring to situations where a breathalyzer tests failed to give accurate results.
        • then what, nothing in OSS land takes responsibility for itself

          Red Hat does. Even Ubuntu will to some extent. Any time you want you can get paid support for OSS and, given the right support contract and money they really will take care of you properly. The definitely take responsibility for the things they promise. (N.B. your two dollar desktop license really doesn't promise much at all).

          You don't even need paid support. Hire a computer programmer and tell him to fix it and part of his job is to upstream it. He needs to work well with upstream software projects. Move him from project to project. There you go.

      • then what, nothing in OSS land takes responsibility for itself, its free it (sort of works) if it doesnt fix it your self or fuck off

        If you buy in proprietary software that is broken, you need to get the vendor to fix it. If you've directly contracted a small software vendor to write the system for you then that might be fine. If you buy in FOSS then you can pay your vendor to fix it, or you can fix it yourself, or you can pay a third party contractor to fix it. Sure, if you decide to just install FOSS software yourself without paying a vendor then (surprise) you can't expect someone to fix it for you, but thats the risk you take if y

      • Open source is a licensing model. Taking responsibility is part of the contract. The difference between open source and proprietary code is that you have the option of going to more than one company to get it audited or get bugs fixed with open source. You can negotiate a better support contract because there are multiple companies willing to take your money. If you're buying software without a support contract then you're in a similar boat with open source or proprietary software: with open source you

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Everyone assumes someone is already out there testing all open-source software, which is why it never seems to get done.

      Also, deliberate bugs and backdoors simply wouldn't be checked back in.
      • Re:Open Source... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by c0lo (1497653) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:39AM (#44222519)

        Everyone assumes someone is already out there testing all open-source software, which is why it never seems to get done.
        Also, deliberate bugs and backdoors simply wouldn't be checked back in.

        TFA quote:

        Ms Hamilton said that, by the time the figure reached £36,000, she lied to the Post Office - wrongly telling them the books were balancing just so that she could open the office the next day.

        With closed-source, the choices Ms Hamilton has:
        * keep covering the differences caused by the bug
        * refuse to pay and instead sue the Post Office/Royal Mail with the hope they'll ask Horizon computer system to check. Not going to happen: the plaintiff carries the burden of proof, the Post Office has no incentive to do anything.

        With OSS, Ms Hamilton has (alone or in by association with other sub-postmasters) the choice between:
        * do the same as for close source. or
        * hire a QA team and, upon obtaining the proof, sue the Post Office for the unwarranted requests, cost of source audit and other unspecified damages. The Post Office has the choice between to keep losing such suits or pay their own source audit/QA process and release the fixes in OSS.

        I wonder which of the two would minimize the total social cost of the package maintenance (in the very specific terms of the "unseen costs" [wikipedia.org])?

        • Re:Open Source... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by someone1234 (830754) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:04AM (#44222605)

          A really wise post office chief would have done that audit before the first lawsuit.

          • Re:Open Source... (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Spottywot (1910658) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @02:15AM (#44222851)

            A really wise post office chief would have done that audit before the first lawsuit.

            Yes you are correct, but the trouble is that the word 'Postmaster' conjours an image of someone with authority over a medium to largish business. In reality a lot of postmasters in the UK are simply running a family business/ small shop that just happens to be the Post office as well. A lot of these people have no real business training, do some very simple bookkeeping themselves, and when some software comes along that they've never had to use before, that software had better be bug free and easy enough to use. Before anyone says no software is bug free, I know that, by bug free I mean 'not going to add 13,000 to the turnover of a small business seemingly at random' . In short I think blaming the Postmasters for not being wise enough is just a wee bit disingenuous.

          • You don't seem to understand how the post office works in the UK. A sub-post-master is a mail-man.

            His boss would be a full postmaster. Since the post is privatized technically all the subpostmasters are independent businesses, which means they are supposed to look out for themselves, they aren't really capable of hiring a QA team.

        • In the context of a court case, judges have discretion to turn over closed source to for-hire special/expert witness review and presentment to the court. So your claim of only two choices for review (OSS wins the day, vs the P.O. can refuse to do anything) is evidently meant to convince the more gullible reader into believing OSS would have made the problems experienced by Ms Hamilton & co. easier to resolve. The sub-post masters would have to sue for satisfaction either way, and hire the special witn

    • It would still be traceable, as the source code still exists, you just do not have it.
      And in jail you are not going to be able to track down a bug anyways.

      And this is the reason you would want closed source commercial software. Because then it would not just be you held responsible, but the vender who supplied the software as well.

  • In related news... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 08, 2013 @11:16PM (#44222143)

    A government spokesman has stated they have "absolute confidence" in all their computer systems, and what happened to Mr. Buttle was merely an unfortunate accident that could have happened to anyone.

    • sounds like outsourcing or PHBs saying that with the real IT guys far from the real issues.

      • by jrumney (197329) on Monday July 08, 2013 @11:28PM (#44222199) Homepage

        It is outsourcing. The sub-postmasters who are being charged with fraudulent accounting over the results of these bugs are mostly former Royal Mail employees who were sacked and hired back as independent retailers contracted to provide postal services with contracts that transferred all the risk onto the small retailer providing the service.

        • talking about the IT outsourcing as well.

        • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:49AM (#44222567)

          The sub-postmasters who are being charged with fraudulent accounting over the results of these bugs are mostly former Royal Mail employees who were sacked and hired back as independent retailers

          ...

          Okay, so what they're saying is they fucked over the employees by taking away all their benefits and cutting their wages, they underfunded a software project that performed an apparently mission-critical function... and then fucked them over again when (surprise!) it didn't live up to the absurd demands of management.

          Incompetence on this level by the government -- punishing the soldiers instead of the generals, has already lead to the failure of one major world economy whose various bureaucratic deitrius was "too big to fail", and I see Britain has failed to learn anything from the cluster fuck that is the remains of the US economy.

          Well, British citizens... speaking as someone from the miserable colonies; It'll be nice to have some company.

          • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

            The Royal Mail is a private company, not government run. Naturally they went with the lowest bidder and tried out externalise all their risks and costs. That's how capitalism works.

          • Okay, so what they're saying is they fucked over the employees by taking away all their benefits and cutting their wages, they underfunded a software project that performed an apparently mission-critical function... and then fucked them over again when (surprise!) it didn't live up to the absurd demands of management.

            So, I take it the Postal Service is a government-enforced monopoly with no competitive pressures in the UK too?

            Incompetence on this level by the government -- punishing the soldiers instead of

    • by Baby Duck (176251)
      Wish I had mod points to congratulate this relevant shout out to Brazil.
    • A government spokesman has stated they have "absolute confidence" in all their computer systems

      Citation please. Neither the summary nor the article quote anyone as saying that. It appears, unattributed, in a picture caption.

      The article presents no evidence that the missing money was caused by computer bugs. Just that the software contains bugs. But any complex software has bugs. They say nothing about the severity or nature of the bugs. Did the bugs cause anyone to receive extra money? No? Just missing money? A program cannot just make money "disappear". There is still a transaction that it

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Common Joe (2807741)

        You make great points, but I am forced to disagree with you on your conclusion. I don't come to conclusion that "these people are just thieves that got caught and are now trying to get off".

        There's a guy who I knew who was sent to jail. He was charged with murder of his girlfriend. There were steroids, cocaine, and a fatal seizure involved. Now, I'm not saying the guy wasn't stupid, but the prosecutor of the case stated the following: individually, the facts make it look like he was guilty of murder, bu

        • Now, you make a very astute point. Nowhere in the article does it say where this missing money went. That is a very interesting point to me. You'd think it would be trivial for a reporter to find this out. From my perch, that means it can go any which way, because I don't trust government (in any country), I don't trust people and I certainly don't trust the media. This article leaves way too many questions.

          I think that after prosecuting the poor victims they will have written off any unrecoverable 'losses' and the saved themselves a good amount in tax, it would be interesting to know how many post offices have just blindly accepted this bug and just stumped up the money with no one actually realising the mistake, in which case it just goes down as pure profit for the post office. In both cases the Post Office end up winners out of this 'creative accounting'.

          • by countach (534280)

            Hmm, yes surely there is some kind of an audit log. Every penny could surely be traced to where it went. A very strange story is this.

      • by anagama (611277)

        Ummm ... second link in TFS. This one here:

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23233573 [bbc.co.uk]

        Look at the caption under the "Post Office" picture. It reads:

        The Post Office previously said it had "absolute confidence" in its branch accounting

        also this from the body:

        "The review underlines our cause for confidence in the overall system."

        I suggest you try ctrl-f or cmd-f (looks like a clover on a mac keyboard) before doing the citation rant.

      • by stenvar (2789879)

        Here's your citation:

        http://lmgtfy.com/?q=%22Mr.+Buttle%22 [lmgtfy.com]

      • by horza (87255)

        It was a very clever reference to the movie Brazil, where the bug was actually a bug (falling into the machine and changing "TUTTLE" to "BUTTLE")... which is a reference even further back to the very first computer "bug" and where the term first got its name. This unleashes a chain of events leading to the arrest of Buttle, with management having full confidence in their software until belatedly and begrudgingly giving restitution after the damage had already been done (much like in the article). The refere

      • Read the article.

        The one case it mentions where someone was actually convicted, she was not convicted because the computers said she was short. She was convicted because she told someone else the computers said she wasn't short. Since the computers were her accounting system, and she was lying about what they said, this was accounting fraud. I'd assume it's typical, and nobody (or at least very few people) has been convicted of stealing based solely on computer data.

    • by anagama (611277)

      Tuttle or Buttle?

      Why worry about bugs? The government will give you a refund!

  • "I got to the end of one week and I was £2,000 short so I rang the helpdesk and they told me to do various things and then it said I was £4,000 short.

    "They then said I had to pay them the £4,000 because that's what my contract says - that I would make good any losses.

    "Then while I was repaying that it jumped up to £9,000."
    System 'confidence'

    Ms Hamilton said that, by the time the figure reached £36,000, she lied to the Post Office - wrongly telling them the books were balancing just so that she could open the office the next day."

    it seems like the helpdesk did not have the power or know-how to see something is very wrong there or maybe they did see something looks off but it's not in the script. Or maybe they where near the max time per call and said said say it's balanced and I will pass this up the chain.

    • by citizenr (871508) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:03AM (#44222367) Homepage

      Similar thing happened to me ~10 years ago(another EU country). National Telecom kept insisting I owed them money, when I called to see WTF is going on not so helpfuldesk assistant said he can see my payment and it cleared but system still wants moar money, he knows its a glitch and I can ignore it. A month later I get a bill for 2x what they imagined I owed them plus interest. I called again, asked for name of helpdesk guy, asked him to check it and informed next bill comes like this I will be reporting fraud to the police with his name attached - he cleared whole thing in 10 minutes.

      Yes, this was very asshole of me, but it goes to show where is a will, there is a way.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Greyfox (87712)
        Pretty much being an asshole to helpdesk people is the only way to get results. Most of those guys are just trying to get you to go away in 10 minutes or less so they can make their call stats for the week. Back in the day you might occasionally get someone who knew what they were doing, but that was back before the outsourcing craze pretty much guaranteed you were talking to a guy in a call center that also serves as helpdesk support for Hoover vacuum cleaners. He probably doesn't know that much about vacu
      • by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:32AM (#44222497) Journal

        Yes, this was very asshole of me, but it goes to show where is a will, there is a way.

        In what way were you being an asshole? Someone (or something) was trying to defraud you, and you stood your ground and made them (or it) stop. That's not being an asshole; that's merely being responsible.

        • In what way were you being an asshole?

          Because it was just some poor guy at the help desk, who is getting paid $10 an hour (if he's lucky), and doesn't need someone to sue him for fraud to make his day worse. It's not his fault, and now he's making threats at him.

          I'm not saying he did the wrong thing, just that the guy at the help desk didn't deserve the treatment he got.

          • by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:06AM (#44222615) Journal

            *ahem*

            The poor guy at the help desk: Was he, or was he not representing the company?

            • by adolf (21054)

              [Yes, this is a trick question.]

            • by jrumney (197329)

              To the customer, he appears to be representing the company, but to his employer he is authorized to read the script and no more. Always ask for the guy's manager first if you need them to actually resolve a problem by doing something out of the ordinary.

              • by squizzar (1031726)

                Good luck with that. I had to phone my car insurance company three times, the first two times I was promised a manager would call me back immediately. My tone went from polite but frustrated to full on shouting down the phone and threatening to come round and burn the place down angry at which point I was magically transferred to a manager. The first thing I said to the manager was that he was an arsehole for making it so difficult to reach him that I had to deliver such a torrent of abuse to a member o

            • by N1AK (864906)
              Are you eligible to vote in any country or any other form of election? By the false premise you're proposing you are to blame and should be treated as such, for everything that country/group does.
          • by gl4ss (559668)

            In what way were you being an asshole?

            Because it was just some poor guy at the help desk, who is getting paid $10 an hour (if he's lucky), and doesn't need someone to sue him for fraud to make his day worse. It's not his fault, and now he's making threats at him.
            I'm not saying he did the wrong thing, just that the guy at the help desk didn't deserve the treatment he got.

            of course he deserved. he was working as the henchman for the company trying to fraud the customer - he was the company contact and was getting paid for being that company contact. shitty job, but working a shitty job at a shitty company doesn't really provide moral protection from assholeness, in fact it's pretty much the opposite. add to that the fact that he _could_ fix the problem he was exactly the right person to say that what the company was doing would not stand.

          • by deimtee (762122)
            When he was threatened with a lawsuit the problem magically went away. Obviously, he had the power to fix it. If it took threatening him to get him to fix it, then he deserved the threat.
    • by bloodhawk (813939)
      shoddy system for shore. but there is no circumstance where telling a lie about the books being balanced is an acceptable response in this scenario no matter how painful the system or process is, It just makes the problem 10 times worse.
      • by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:38AM (#44222517) Journal

        The problem, I think, is that there weren't any books per se to begin with: Everything is tabulated with a computer, and the computer is wrong.

        And when the computer is off by tens of thousands of pounds/dollars/whatever: OMFG.

        But lying? No. Telling the truth is good, especially when it comes to official money. "I don't know what's happening because we're off by a huge amount of money, far more than we could ever accomplish in a day's business" is a good starting point.

        (Just because the books are already cooked by some outside force, does not mean that one must continue to cook them.)

        • by Patch86 (1465427)

          Obviously YMMV, anecdote time, but...

          I used to work in a role where I was responsible for reconcile the finances of a bank branch every day. Basically, we relied on the computer to tally everything up correctly. If the computer reported a discrepancy, I'd spend the next hour with a print out, pencil and calculator going through every transaction line by line until I found the exact key press where the discrepancy originated (not always easy if there were multiple and overlapping discrepancies). 99% of the t

          • You may not understand what a "sub-post-master" does.

            A sub-post-master runs a tiny little post office. The kind that doesn't have employees, or only has a couple employees. He's basically a mailman who can also sell stamps. Oh, and he's a private contractor so he can't get help from anyone in the government except the help desk. A subpostmaster simply does not have the money to hire an accounting guy full-time to go through the books every day.

        • obviously the fucking computer program should have shown where the money went or what was bought with it supposedly.

          that some people were put to jail without them even being able to show actual money missing(or the services the supposed money paid for) is a pretty big fuckup from the police as well.

        • by dbIII (701233)
          The software is lying, the suspect is making a guess.
      • there is no circumstance where telling a lie about the books being balanced is an acceptable response

        It was a good response if she was trying to cover up her theft of 36,000 pounds.

      • shoddy system for shore. but there is no circumstance where telling a lie about the books being balanced is an acceptable response in this scenario no matter how painful the system or process is, It just makes the problem 10 times worse.

        I dunno, when your business is about to be shut down due to a computer glitch and there's nothing you can do about it... It didn't end well for her but I can certainly see why she did it. What would you do if the choice is between "lie" and "be shut down"?

  • by HuguesT (84078) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:00AM (#44222347)

    So these employees were forced to use the UK PO accounting software, which had bugs, and which showed in some instances imaginary shortfalls that they had to repay with no way of defending themselves. Sounds peachy! I hope some judge throws the book at the UK post office and finds some way to redress the situation.

    • by Xest (935314)

      Well about 100 of these sub-postmasters are looking at taking them to court over this so yes I suspect they'll win and win big given that people lost houses and went to jail over these bugs.

  • Try healthcare (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Wolfling1 (1808594) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:21AM (#44222449) Journal
    We make software for Healthcare professionals. As you can imagine, the risk footprint is pretty ugly.

    We have special testing programs that are targeted at protecting patient safety.

    We also have insurance up the wazoo (a technical term). Our PI Insurance covers us for several millions of dollars per claim, and hundreds of millions for class actions. It is our single biggest insurance expense for the entire organisation.

    I'm happy to say that in 18 years, we've never made a claim against it, and we've never been notified of any negative consequence on any patients.
  • by hcs_$reboot (1536101) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:26AM (#44222473)
    Maybe that'll encourage other CEO/CFO... to hire competent developers at the right (accurate/higher) salary. Due to the apparent easiness of the www languages (html,css,js,php) many people coming from various horizons proclaim themselves "developer", then offering their "talent" at a lower price.
  • by alanw (1822) <alan@wylie.me.uk> on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @12:29AM (#44222483) Homepage

    Private Eye [private-eye.co.uk], a fortnightly UK satirical and news magazine first raised this issue
    almost two years ago. Here's a link to the journalist's blog article. [blogspot.co.uk]

  • sounds like they should've used the windows 7 eula (section 25): LIMITATION ON AND EXCLUSION OF DAMAGES. Except for any refund the manufacturer or installer may provide, you cannot recover any other damages... This limitation applies ... even if ... Microsoft knew or should have known about the possibility of the damages.
  • Actually (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:01AM (#44222597)

    What I build every day directly relates to the stats and commission of a large number of people. The problem is I'm given flawed methodology from the outset by the managers and above of these people. They basically do not have the analytical or even basic math skills required to be writing the requirements they are in charge of. When I point out all the problems with how they want to approach what we're doing, all I get in return is talk of scope creep and lines like "you're trying to fix today's problems when what we need done is the design for tomorrows system!" which I'm assuming they got out of a book or trade magazine because I hear it repeated enough. None of it really matters when they're doing something as idiotic as dividing every month by 30 to get a daily average.
    "well most months are 30 days"
    No, most months have 31... what about holidays and weekends?
    "See? It all averages out!"
    You and I have entirely different definitions of "average" and... whatever, I've written all my objections into the design requirements, please sign off that you're ignoring my warnings, thanks.
    "Done!"
    Again, your peoples numbers will be completely wrong...

    • Again, your peoples numbers will be completely wrong...

      Did we learn nothing from Superman III?

      The difference between the commission they're supposed to get and the commission the bosses signed off on goes into the "Information Systems Mainteance and Training Fund". They'll sign off on that too, just put it in the requirements. Oh, and send me a postcard from Tahiti!

  • You definitely can't call accounting software "ordinary", at least not in terms of risks.
    It operates in an area with high legal risks for its users in case of an error, and it's not a revelation for the developers of said class of software.

  • by mysidia (191772) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:43AM (#44222725)

    They have misplaced trust in their computer system.

    And misplaced lack of trust in human beings.

    Accounting shortfall should not mean someone goes to jail.

    It should mean a thorough investigation is launched, and the tool that first reported the shortfall should not be assumed to hold accurate information.

    • by mcvos (645701)

      I suspect the main result of this is going to be that nobody will want to be a sub-postmaster anymore. If you risk going to jail for other people's bugs, I doubt the risk is worth the extra revenue.

      How it's even possible that someone goes to jail before a thorough investigation is another big mystery. I guess not only does the Post Office trust their buggy software too much, but the judge take the Post Office at their word.

      • by N1AK (864906)
        It's a risk in any job where you have responsibility for money in this day and age. Hopefully what this will highlight is that you need to follow procedures and document transactions because if/when the system fucks up it will be your ability to put together 'the real truth' from the records that will keep you out of jail. A finance system can say you stole £100,000 yesterday, but if you can show categorically that the money was never there to steal you're safe; if your records are incomplete then it'
  • by FuzzNugget (2840687) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @01:54AM (#44222761)

    To resummarize:

    Sub-postmasters, for those who aren't aware, are private subcontractors of the UK postal system. They are not directly employed by the government, they operate as private businesses.

    The UK requires them to use specific software, called Horizon, to manage all transactions and accounting.

    This software had a pretty serious bug that resulted in wrongly calculated shortfalls into the thousands of pounds. Their contracts, however, stipulate that they must make up for shortfalls themselves. Doesn't matter if the software is wrong, that's what it says, that's what it is (sounds like government to me...)

    This bug went unfixed for years, despite numerous complaints and reports.

    Some postmasters started falsely reporting the shortfalls as the obviously miscalculated numbers climbed to ridiculous amounts (tens of thousands) that would put them out of business by the end of the day. Because falsely reporting accounting numbers is illegal (even though the "right" numbers are obviously wrong and completely not the postmasters' fault), some of them were sentenced to prison, most likely due to the strict, unwavering and unreasoning nature of law.

    Basically, they were users self-correcting for what they knew was a flaw in the software they were forced to use, and they went to jail for it or otherwise paid dearly. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. All in all, a pretty deplorable miscarriage of justice.

    • by newcastlejon (1483695) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @02:59AM (#44223029)

      To resummarize:

      Sub-postmasters, for those who aren't aware, are private subcontractors of the UK postal system. They are not directly employed by the government, they operate as private businesses.

      The UK requires them to use specific software, called Horizon, to manage all transactions and accounting.

      The Post Office is not state-owned.

      FYI, the postal system in the UK was formally owned and operated by the state, but was split back in 1986 into Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail; the former was privatised. The Post Office operate the physical branches as well as selling some minor banking and telephony* services while RM, which is state-owned, deal with the actual delivery of mail. FWIW parts of my line of work would be much easier if the government actually did run the post offices.

      *To make things more confusing, the old GPO also ran the telephones but that part was spun off into British Telecom long ago. Now the new Post Office also do telephony.

    • Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

      "The only winning move is not to play."

      Their power is en masse - if they all tender their resignation letters on the same day for the same reason, it's likely to get the required attention and possibly they would not have to stay out of the position if the situation is dealt with.

      But, really, is the job market over there so bad that they're willing to stay in a job that will either bankrupt them or see them in prison?

  • ALL of the major accounting software packages have tons of bugs in them. They just stick disclaimers in them voiding them of any responsibility. I know because I was an accountant once, I was hauled over the coals a number of times because of it, even got a disciplinary for poor performance. I quadruple checked and added things up in excel and on paper yet the numbers which came out when entered on the software didn't add up. Until I started recording my screen and demonstrated that it was the software
  • Sometimes Therac-style, sometimes WoW-style ...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Posting as AC for obvious reasons.

    Our postal authority uses the same system (Horizon is the UK post office name for the 'entire system'). The counter system runs something called WebRiposte Essential written by an Irish firm called Escher. The way the system works is that everything you do on it is written to what is effectively a journalling system that is replicated peer-to-peer. It is extremely reliable, and Escher boast about it having never lost a transaction. This journalling system is indeed very sol

  • ... how many of us consider the potential for bugs in ordinary software to adversely affect those that use it?"

    Isn't that what "bug" means in the software field? After all, an error in software that doesn't affect anything relevant to users rarely (if ever) gets listed as a "bug". Bug reports are always the result of software getting something wrong in a way that a user notices. If the affect were beneficial, I sorta doubt that many users would report it.

If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.

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