Posted On February 26, 2020 Charles Ramsay

Part 1: Does Software Matter?

Last March, a Boeing 737 MAX crashed in Ethiopia killing 157 people. Six months earlier, a different Boeing 737 MAX crashed, killing 189 people. What was the cause of the planes' crashes? Not pilot error, not bad weather, or even structural failure, but bad software.

While the Boeing 737 MAX software had been subjected to validation studies by the manufacturer, it did not undergo the usual rigorous software scrutiny performed by an independent agency. The software is so riddled with bugs, the planes are still grounded today ... nearly a year later.

If bad software in airplanes can cause catastrophic airliners to crash, you'd better believe that bad software in a DWI breath test machine is going to cause invalid results.

Today’s breath test machines are computers which operate attached hardware. The DataMaster – used in Minnesota and around the country – runs on a Microsoft Windows operating system, and controls nearly every aspect of a breath test. This including the diagnostic checks, breath sampling, proper sequencing, measurement, conversion, and the final reporting of the measurement.

When drivers blow into a breath test machine and the results are not valid, reliable or accurate; hundreds of people don't die, so no one recognizes the error. But erroneous DWI tests result not only in convicting innocent people, but guilty drivers are more likely to go free.

Like the Boeing 737 Max, the DataMaster DMT has undergone "black box testing". But as the tragic airplane crashes showed us, we cannot just rely on "black box testing" if we want to have faith that our machines are going to perform the way we want them to. When it comes to the DataMaster, we’ve discovered several anomalies in the last two years which cause us grave concerns. These anomalies include reporting a test result greater than what the machine actually measures and sampling parameters different than those published and testified to by Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) employees. And none of these errors were uncovered by "black box testing." 

In November, the New York Times published its expose of DWI breath testing, The Machines Can Put You in Jail. Don’t Trust Them. The series includes links to two of our cases. First, we revealed that the BCA had turned off a critical safeguard – the method the BCA touted as a means to prevent substances on a driver’s breath from artificially raising the final result. Second, the article links to a court order where we proved to a judge that the machine reports results greater than it measures

Software. Matters.  If the software contains bugs, then the tests may not be reliable. And without independent analysis, we’re left to trust the foreign, for-profit company’s secret machine.

Should citizens have the right to peek behind the curtain to see how the machine works and whether it works properly?  See our next in the series, “Nothing to See Here!”

Part 1: Does Software Matter?

Part 2: Nothing to See Here!

Part 3: Déjà Vu.

Part 4: A Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Charles Ramsay