Monday, January 9, 2017

SEC and Whistleblowers: Can robots come to the rescue?

Saw this following news alert from AccountingToday:

"The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had awarded more than $5.5 million to a whistleblower. According to the SEC, the whistleblower directly reported critical information to the commission about an ongoing scheme at their workplace, and that led to a successful enforcement action..."

The article also gives some useful stats on the number of whistle-blowers coming out and the total number of payouts, so check it out.

This is good news in terms of promoting the idea of speaking truth to power. Without such assistance it can be quite difficult to encourage whisteblowing.

We often have a romantic notion of what it is like to tell the truth when there is a drive by all of those around us to commit fraud. Too many Hollywood blockbusters make us believe, falsely, that there is always a happy ending where the good guys win.

For a reality check, we should take a look at Alayne Fleischmann's ordeal in attempting to blow the whistle on the mortgage fraud at Jamie Dimon's JP Morgan Chase. As Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi notes:

"Fleischmann...had to struggle to find work despite some striking skills and qualifications, a common symptom of a not-so-common condition called being a whistle-blower...Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she's kept her mouth shut since then. "My closest family and friends don't know what I've been living with," she says. "Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview."

As she notes in the video below, the reality of such environments is that there is subordination of the "compliance" functionsto enable the fraud to go through (e.g. the Due Diligence manager got angry when people thought that the loans were bad), lack of effective segregation of duties (e.g. sales people were involved in the due diligence review), and other issues:

Can robots come to the rescue?

When looking at process automation more broadly, we see that one of the "side benefits" is compliance. For example, when library loans out e-books they are never returned late as the patron's access to the digital copy on the reading device is removed right on the due date. Similarly, with autonomous vehicles they never speed, fail to complete to a full stop and the like.

Insurance companies have attempted to use what we can call "compliance tech" by offering drivers a discount for good driving if they are willing to install a monitoring device in their car. As noted in the CBC article, Desjardin Insurance has noted that 7000 people have for this offer which they call Ajusto. As can be seen in the video, Ajusto also leverages gamification and social to promote this program.

Although they have promised that such technology can't be used to penalize the driver, many skeptics are not sure that it will turn out that. For example,  Leonard Kunka, a motor vehicle litigation lawyer, notes:

"It's an invasive technology. It provides a lot more information than insurers currently have to set premiums, and I question whether it's any better than what the insurers use today to set premiums, which is a person's driving record and their history of collisions and accidents."

In other words, can we expect the insurance companies to maintain rates when they can "see" the driver constantly breaking speed limits? Conversely, can we expect them to lower rates when they see that people can drive safely above the speed limits?

Although I doubt it, the reality of such compliance-tech is that it is only used by people who are already compliant: the others who are not compliant would not sign-up for such technology and even if they did would somehow subvert it - as we saw with the whole Volkswagen emission debacle:

"In the test mode, the cars are fully compliant with all federal emissions levels. But when driving normally, the computer switches to a separate mode—significantly changing the fuel pressure, injection timing, exhaust-gas recirculation, and, in models with AdBlue, the amount of urea fluid sprayed into the exhaust. While this mode likely delivers higher mileage and power, it also permits heavier nitrogen-oxide emissions (NOx)—a smog-forming pollutant linked to lung cancer—up to 40 times higher than the federal limit. That doesn’t mean every TDI is pumping 40 times as much NOx as it should. Some cars may emit just a few times over the limit, depending on driving style and load."
Ultimately, technology is only good as the people that support it and so we can't abdicate such responsibility to technology. Instead, we need to continue to encourage people morally and financially to speak the truth when the see things go awry.

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