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

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.