Law will protect shoddy software whistle blowers

Information systems professionals that blow the whistle on employers over shoddy software development are to be protected by the law, writes John...

Information systems professionals that blow the whistle on employers over shoddy software development are to be protected by the law, writes John Kavanagh.

A new study by the BCS Ethics Committee shows the Public Interest Disclosure Act - the so-called whistle-blowing legislation - gives new significance to the BCS codes of conduct and practice, obligatory for all 37,000-plus members. The Act protects people who disclose facts to protect the public interest.

Information systems cases could include activities contributing to financial malpractice, danger to health and safety, and risks to the environment. The BCS Ethics Committee lists the following examples:

  • Where an aircraft's avionics are suspect because of inadequate design or trialling

  • Where a financial dealing system is inadequately tested and may result in losses to customers

  • Where a pension or payroll system is inadequately tested and may result in loss

  • Where a system appears to be the basis of a fraudulent activity through its specific design features.

    IS specialists who work on such projects and are concerned about them can now disclose their fears under the protection of the law - and the Ethics Committee stresses that BCS members, in particular, are bound to do so.

    The first clause in the BCS Code of Conduct says, "Members shall in their professional practice safeguard public health and safety and have regard to the environment."

    The Ethics Committee also points to a clause which says, "Members shall, if their professional judgement is overruled, indicate the likely consequences". The committee emphasises, "This is the first stage of whistle-blowing and is obligatory on BCS members."

    However, IS professionals face some key issues when it comes to deciding what action to take and when to escalate it, the committee says.

    They must honestly believe their allegations, but must also consider how their claims can be established and verified objectively. They must also be aware that it might be hard for them to assess the scale of potential damage.

    Whistle blowers might also have to prove they believed there would be a cover-up or that they went public because they believed they would be victimised if they kept the disclosure within the organisation.

    The Ethics Committee says the BCS might need to set up a service to advise IS people on professional conduct in general and on whistle-blowing in particular.

    Disclosure dilemmas

    BCSEthics Committee advice to people facing disclosure dilemmas:

  • Establish a clear technical foundation

  • Keep the argument professional, impersonal and objective

  • Avoid extraneous issues and emotion

  • Be cool, clear, concise and accurate in oral and written arguments

  • Catch problems early

  • Keep the argument at the lowest managerial level possible

  • Make sure the issue is important enough before going out on a limb

  • Consider using the employer's dispute resolution mechanism

  • Keep records

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