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Case Analysis Module: Hughes Aircraft

Module by: William Frey. E-mail the author

Summary: This module, designed for the EAC Toolkit (NSF SES 0551779), will test the Toolkit and Connexion’s ability to network different online and offline sources for ethics across the curriculum. It consists of four components designed to provide students with tools for carrying out an in-depth analysis of the cases found at; it also makes substantial references to the draft manuscript of a textbook in computer ethics entitled Good Computing: A Virtue Approach to Computer Ethics under contract with Jones and Bartlett Publishing Company. (This book will consist of the cases displayed at Computing Cases—Therac-25, Machado, and Hughes Aircraft—and 7 additional cases all developed through NSF projects DUE-9972280 and DUE 9980768.) The module presents the case abstract and timeline. It then refers students to where they will find the case narrative, history, and supporting documents that provide background information necessary for analysis. The case abstract and timeline introduce students to the basic outlines of the case. The accompanying decision point taken from the case provides students with the necessary focus to carry out an in-depth analysis. Students respond to the decision-point by working through the four stages: problem specification, solution generation, solution testing, and solution implementation.

Computer Ethics

Case Module Template

By William J. Frey

Module Introduction:

The Hughes case is what Huff and Frey call a thick, historical, evaluative, big news and bad news case. One particularly noteworthy fact about it is the way in which it combines technical issues (the manufacture and testing of integrated circuits) with ethical issues (when is it morally appropriate to blow the whistle and how does one carry this out). Sifting through the case details, documents, and conflicting participant perspectives will both challenge you and hone your skills in moral imagination. Below are frameworks to help you structure the case's ethical and social problems. You will also be provided with decision points that will force you to enter the case as a participant and practice decision-making in the real world. While the timeline presented below changes the names of the key participants, the conclusion of the legal proceedings surrounding this case make it possible for you to learn the real identities of participants in class. This module contains materials to introduce the case. For a complete analysis, you will need to consult These materials were all developed through NSF projects DUE-9972280 and DUE 9980768.

The module presents the case abstract and timeline. It then refers you to where you can find the case narrative, history, and supporting documents that provide background information necessary for analysis. The case abstract and timeline introduce the basic outlines of the case. The accompanying decision point taken from the case provides you with the necessary focus to carry out an in-depth analysis from the standpoint of one of the case's participants. Your job is to respond to the decision-point by working through the four stages: problem specification, solution generation, solution testing, and solution implementation.

Module Activities:

1. Instructor introduces the case based on the abstract and timeline found at

2. Students read case abstract, timeline, case decision point, and case analysis exercises.

3. Students do further research into the case by consulting ComputingCases materials which include narratives, histories, supporting documents, and ethical analyses.

4. Students carry out the activities outlined in the accompanying case exercises by (a) specifying the problem raised in the decision point, (b) generating solutions, (c) testing solutions using ethics tests, and (d) developing plans for implementing the solution over situational constraints.

5. Students prepare their case analyses working in small groups.

6. These groups present their completed analysis to the class in a case-debriefing session.

7. The instructor concludes by discussing the problem-solving issues and intermediate moral concepts raised by the case.

Hughes Microelectronics: Whistleblowing in the Manufacture of Computer Chips for the Military

Case Abstract:

When computer chips are embedded in expensive weapons systems, the chips need to be tested to make sure they can withstand years of exposure to the extreme environmental hazards they might face (rapid changes in temperature, severe shock, changes in atmospheric pressure, etc.). These chips are sealed in metal containers to protect them from the environmental stress. The seals and the chips need to be tested to make sure they can withstand the stress. Unfortunately, the need to manufacture and deliver these chips on time can compete with the desire to test them thoroughly.

In the mid 1980s, Hughes Microelectronics was manufacturing what were called hybrid microchips for use in guidance systems and other military programs. A series of environmental tests were specified by the government contract. But pressure to ship chips out on time to customers got in the way of complete testing. "Hot" chips, those needed right away for shipment were given preferential treatment by some in charge of the testing process and shipped without the proper tests being performed.

This case is about what happened when employees of Hughes Microelectronics noticed that these tests were being skipped. The decisions they made to report this make this one of the classic cases in the history of whistleblowing


1. 1979 Nancy Baker (Baker) begins working for American Aircraft company’s

Microelectronic Circuit Division (American MCD) in Newport Beach, CA

2. 1981 Claire Paul (Paul) begins working for American MCD as a

supervisor for assembly on the hybrid production floor and as a

supervisor in the hybrid engineering lab

3. 1984 Baker becomes supervisor for hybrid quality assurance

4. 1985 Paul asks Baker to look at errors in paperwork,

Baker brings errors to the attention of her supervisors and was told to keep quiet,

beginning of time period when Paul/Baker became aware of problems

in hybrid chip testing and paperwork

5. 1986 Paul becomes supervisor for seals processing in the environmental testing area,

False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733) becomes False Claims Reform Act of 1986

making it stronger and easier to apply

6. Oct. 1986 Paul/Baker report problems to American management, and,

after the problems were not fixed, Paul/Baker reported the

allegations of faulty testing to the United States Department of Defense

7. Jan. 9, 1987 Earliest date that American may have stopped neglecting environmental

screening tests

American Timeline

I. Criminal Suit

a. 1998 Baker leaves American feeling that her job had been stripped of all real responsibility

b. Mar. 1989 Paul is laid off from American

1995 Paul and her husband are divorced

II. Civil Suit: United States of America v. American Aircraft Co., and Tim Clark

a. Dec. 13, 1991 after a lengthy investigation, the U.S. Department of Defense

charges American and Tim A. Clark (Clark) with a 51-count

indictment accusing it of falsifying tests of microelectronic circuits (criminal suit)

b. Jun 15, 1992 American found guilty of conspiring to defraud the U.S.

Government in criminal case, co-defendant Clark

acquitted following 4-week trial, Paul/Baker called as

witnesses in trial, American appeals

c. Oct. 29, 1992 American fined $3.5 million in criminal trial decision

d. Dec. 2, 1993 Appellate court upholds 1992 criminal conviction and sentence,

American appeal fails

Scenario 1:

Frank Saia has worked at Hughes Aircraft for a long time. Now he is faced with the most difficult decisions of his career. He has been having problems in the environmental testing phase of his microchip manufacturing plant; the detailed nature of these tests has caused Hughes to be consistently late in delivering the chips to customers.

Because of the time pressure to deliver chips, Saia has been working to make the production of chips more efficient without losing the quality of the product. Chips are manufactured and then tested, and this provides two places where the process can bottle up. Even though you might have a perfectly fine chip on the floor of the plant, it cannot be shipped without testing. And, since there are several thousand other chips waiting to be tested, it can sit in line for a long time. Saia has devised a method that allows testers to put the important chips, the “hot parts,” ahead of the others without disrupting the flow and without losing the chips in the shuffle. He has also added a “gross leak” test that quickly tells if a chip in a sealed container is actually sealed or not. Adding this test early in the testing sequence allows environmental testing to avoid wasting time by quickly eliminating chips that would fail a more fine-grained leak test later in the sequence.

Because environmental testing is still falling behind, Saia’s supervisors and Hughes customers are getting angry and have begun to apply pressure. Karl Reismueller, the director of the Division of Microelectronics at Hughes, has given Saia’s telephone number to several customers, whose own production lines were shut down awaiting the parts that Saia has had trouble delivering. His customers are now calling him directly to say “we’re dying out here” for need of parts.

Frank Saia has discovered that an employee under his supervision, Donald LaRue, has been skipping tests on the computer chips. Since LaRue began this practice, they have certainly been more on time in their shipments. Besides, both LaRue and Saia know that many of the “hot” parts are actually for systems in the testing phase, rather than for ones that will be put into active use. So testing the chips for long-term durability that go into these systems seems unnecessary. Still, LaRue was caught by Quality Control skipping a test, and now Saia needs to make a decision. Upper management has provided no guidance; they simply told him to “handle it” and to keep the parts on time.

He can’t let LaRue continue skipping tests, or at least he shouldn’t let this skipping go unsupervised. LaRue is a good employee, but he doesn’t have the science background to know which tests would do the least damage if they were skipped. He could work with LaRue and help him figure out the best tests to skip so the least harm is done. But getting directly involved in skipping the tests would mean violating company policy and federal law.

Scenario 2:

Margaret Gooderal works in a supervisory position in the environmental testing group at Hughes Aircraft. Her supervisor, Donald LaRue, is also the current supervisor for environmental testing. The group that LaRue and Gooderal together oversee test the chips that Hughes makes in order to determine that they would survive under the drastic environmental conditions they will likely face.

Rigorous testing of the chips is the ideal, but some chips (the hot chips) get in line ahead of others. Gooderal has found out that over the last several months, many of these tests are being skipped. The reason: Hughes has fallen behind in the production schedule and Hughes upper management and Hughes customers have been applying pressure to get chip production and testing back on schedule. Moreover, LaRue and others feel that skipping certain tests doesn’t matter, since many of these chips are being used in systems that are in the testing phase, rather than ones that will be put into active use.

A few months after Margaret Gooderal started her new position, she was presented with a difficult problem. One of the “girls” (the women and men in Environmental Testing at Hughes), Lisa Lightner, came to her desk crying. She was in tears and trembling because Donald LaRue had forcefully insisted that she pass a chip that she was sure had failed the test she was running.

Lightner ran the hermeticity test on the chips. The chips are enclosed in a metal container, and one of the questions is whether the seal to that container leaks. From her test, she is sure that the chip is a “leaker”—the seal is not airtight so that water and corrosion will seep in over time and damage the chip. She has come to Gooderal for advice. Should she do what LaRue wants and pass a chip she knows is a leaker?

Case Analysis Exercises:

1. Identify key components of the STS

Table 1
Part/Level of Analysis Hardware Software Physical Surroundings People, Groups, & Roles Procedures Laws & Regulations Data & Data Structures

2. Specify the problem:

2a. Is the problem a disagreement on facts? What are the facts? What are cost and time constraints on uncovering and communicating these facts?

2b. Is the problem a disagreement on a critical concept? What is the concept? Can agreement be reached by consulting legal or regulatory information on the concept? (For example, if the concept in question is safety, can disputants consult engineering codes, legal precedents, or ethical literature that helps provide consensus? Can disputants agree on positive and negative paradigm cases so the concept disagreement can be resolved through line-drawing methods?

2c. Use the table to identify and locate value conflicts within the STS. Can the problem be specified as a mismatch between a technology and the existing STS, a mismatch within the STS exacerbated by the introduction of the technology, or by overlooked results?

Table 2
STS/Value Safety (freedom from harm) Justice (Equity & Access) Privacy Property Free Speech
Physical Surroundings          
People, Groups, & Roles          
Data & Data Structures          

3. Develop a general solution strategy and then brainstorm specific solutions:

Table 3
Problem / Solution Strategy Disagreement Value Conflict Situational Constraints
  Factual Conceptual Integrate? Tradeoff? Resource?Technical?Interest

3a. Is problem one of integrating values, resolving disagreements, or responding to situational constraints?

3b. If the conflict comes from a value mismatch, then can it be solved by modifying one or more of the components of the STS? Which one?

4. Test solutions:

Table 4
Alternative / Test Reversibility Value: Justice Value: Responsibility Value: Respect Harm Code
A #1            
A #2            
A #3            

5. Implement solution over feasibility constraints

Table 5
Alternative Constraint Resource Interest Technical
  Time Cost Individual Organization Legal/ Social Available Techno-logy Manufacturability

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