Coding matters: Cars, cheats and whistle-blowers

A hand holding money, a judge's hammer and the face of a man in the background

I read an article a few days ago that gave me a horrible sense of déjà vu. (This is not my usual light-hearted post. This is serious stuff.)

My old sad story

Some years ago I developed a one-day seminar called “Coding Ethics”. It was for a specific client, who then decided that they didn’t need it. A sad story, because none of our other clients were interested.

Some Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) lecturers did attend the seminar. That led to my collaboration with TUT to conduct an online survey about ethics in software engineering. Another sad story, because I struggled to get clients to participate.

Maybe people aren’t interested because they know this stuff. Or maybe we’d just rather not think about it.

Remember Dieselgate

In 2021 I presented a webinar called “Programmers, Power and Responsibility”. In it, I told the story of James Liang and Dieselgate. (If you’re interested, watch 02:30 – 10:30 of the webinar video.)

Dieselgate is the story of how Volkswagen cheated on diesel emissions tests, and got caught. This fraud cost VW billions of dollars. Some of its executives were jailed for their role in the fraud.

James Liang, the man who designed the software, was sentenced to 40 months in prison. He wasn’t the mastermind behind the fraud. He wasn’t a key decision-maker. But he was a key person in making the fraud possible.

Liang’s story is a reminder to programmers and engineers that you are responsible for your work. You can’t blindly follow your boss’s instructions.

History repeats itself

On Monday, Toyota again admitted to cheating on vehicle certification tests.

It’s not new. This came to light last year, after a whistleblower came forward.

It’s not just Toyota. Recently Mazda, Honda and Suzuki also admitted to improper tests. In some cases, the fraud has been going back decades.

Everyone knew VW wasn’t the only company cheating. What surprises me is that these companies continued to cheat. I thought the fines and the prison sentences would be good reasons to clean up their act.

Understand the need for trust

Earlier this year, the Toyota CEO, Koji Sato, made a similar apology.

Sato claimed that people did not have a proper understanding of certification. I don’t believe that. These companies employ lots of smart people.

Sato also said that staff needed “a more thorough education about the importance of complying with rules”. I believe that. But it’s a sad statement. It implies that, as adults, we don’t already understand why integrity is important.

Salute the whistle blowers

The judge who convicted Liang described him as a good man, who was “too loyal”. Whether it’s loyalty or fear of repercussions, it’s incredibly difficult for employees to blow the whistle.

When people do raise concerns, we need to commend their bravery. So let’s salute the authors of the recent open letter to the AI community. They are taking a strong ethical stand in “A Right to Warn about Advanced Artificial Intelligence”.

Every industry in the world relies on software. We expect to be able to trust our doctors and accountants. In the same way, users and the public should be able to trust software developers.

What do you think about this? Please share your comments.

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