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The UK Post Office scandal holds lessons for telecom

The assumption that computers must be right and people wrong is a worry as telcos and other big companies race to 'softwarize' their businesses.

Iain Morris

January 12, 2024

4 Min Read
Post Office sign hanging above a branch
(Source: Post Office)

"Computer says no." The catchphrase, immortalized in a series of Little Britain comedy sketches from the noughties, brilliantly mocks society's overreliance on and trust in technology. In the sketches, a glum-faced PC operator routinely dismisses people's queries and complaints, or simply tells bewildered individuals they are wrong, after some furious bashing at a keyboard. That catchphrase is a neat, three-word summary of attitudes during the UK's Post Office scandal, which dominates national headlines in the country this week. And there are lessons to be learnt for other organizations, telcos included.

For those outside the UK, and probably in the dark about all this, the government-owned Post Office, a so-called "national institution," relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued prosecutions against hundreds of employees accused of stealing money when the blame – it turned out – lay squarely with faulty software provided by Japan's Fujitsu. Forced to pay back what they had "stolen," dozens lost their livelihoods and homes. Some were imprisoned. A few took their lives.

This all happened between 2000 and 2015. It was thanks to some diligent reporting by Computer Weekly in 2009 that it first came to light. Now widely acknowledged as the biggest miscarriage of justice the UK has ever seen, it is in the news this week because of a recent ITV dramatization watched by millions. Shockingly, most victims have yet to have their convictions overturned or receive compensation. Amid overdue public outrage, the government now intends to race through legislation for a mass quashing.

As in those Little Britain sketches, the starting point for all concerned – bar the actual victims – was that the computer must be right, ergo the people (the postmasters, in this case) had to be wrong. The Post Office managers would regularly insist Fujitsu's software was "robust," and the UK's criminal justice system would just accept it as fact. Postmasters were vilified in the local communities they had dutifully served for years. This was despite the total lack of evidence that any real money went missing. No one apparently considered the improbability of one organization employing such a disproportionate number of thieves and fraudsters. Money postmasters were subsequently forced to hand over seems to have fattened Post Office profits. It is all hard to believe.

Fujitsu under fire

What has all this to do with telecom? First off, some of the players involved in the scandal are today active in telecom, and principally Fujitsu. The Japanese technology firm is now under scrutiny over the role it played in the scandal. In the late nineties, it reportedly leant on the UK government to sign contracts even though its employees knew there were problems with the software, branded Horizon, at the time. There is suspicion Fujitsu was complicit in a Post Office cover-up. An investigation is underway.

The reputational damage outside the UK now risks hurting Fujitsu's prospects in telecom and other sectors. It has, notably, scored a recent deal to provide radio equipment to AT&T, one of the biggest telcos in the US, and is pitching software as well as hardware in this market worldwide. If the Post Office scandal seems like a parochial matter for the UK alone, think again. The Japanese press, in recent days, has been all over the story. Nor is Fujitsu's reputation the only thing at stake. More than a billion dollars has been wiped off Fujitsu's value since the broadcast of the ITV drama and, pending the government's investigation, it may have to compensate victims and could lose other UK public-sector contracts.

Automation consternation

But the affair is also relevant and a little frightening for telecom, as a sector heavily invested in technology, because of the instant trust many executives seem to place in new cloud and software systems, which various operators are rapidly embracing. Indeed, there is a Little Britain-like view among some telco professionals on the technology side of the business that humans are a problem. Besides costing money, they are prone to making fat-fingered mistakes as networks grow more complicated. Extreme automation, as far as these tech enthusiasts are concerned, is the answer. Software proliferates.

The salivating over generative AI is indicative. It exploded onto the scene as recently as late 2022 with ChatGPT and still tends to get things wrong or make stuff up – the phenomenon of so-called "hallucinations." Yet it's hard to find a telco today that is not eyeing the deployment of genAI in customer services, network operations and other areas. There is even now software-writing software to minimize human programmers' involvement.

In this context, and the aftermath of the Post Office affair, operators should proceed more cautiously than ever. The scandal has shown that not even the biggest technology companies are infallible. It also highlights the odd relationship people have with technology – worried about job losses, angered when a single self-driving car so much as clips a pedestrian, yet unwilling to believe a computer can be wrong.

That raises important ethical questions about the handover of responsibilities from people to machines. If humdrum but skilled and critical tasks become fully automated, and people are no longer trained to handle them, any system faults could be catastrophic in future, when the workforce has been fully denuded of any relevant experts. "Computer says no" was funny in the days of Little Britain. Twenty years on, it is getting harder to laugh.

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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