The Home Office has announced it will stop using a biased computer algorithm to process visa applications following a legal challenge.
Home Secretary Priti Patel revealed that from Friday 7th August, the “visa streaming” algorithm will be suspended “pending a redesign of the process”.
The announcement follows a legal challenge launched by digital rights group, Foxglove, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).
The legal challenge claimed the Home Office’s automated visa application system discriminated on the basis of nationality. Since 2015, the Home Office has used a traffic light system to grade visa applications.
Using an automated tool which the government department described as a ‘streaming tool’, the Home Office assigned a red, amber or green risk rating to visa applicants. Once assigned, these ratings played a significant role in determining the success of a visa application.
Applications made by people from ‘suspect’ nationalities were often allocated a higher risk score and their applications were more heavily scrutinised by Home Office officials.
The legal challenge argued this process was highly discriminatory and in breach of the Equality Act as certain applicants were more likely to be denied a visa.
“The algorithm suffered from a feedback loop – a vicious circle in which biased enforcement and visa statistics reinforce which countries stay on the list of suspect nationalities. In short, applicants from suspect nationalities were more likely to have their visa application rejected,” the JCWI said in a statement.
These system errors, combined with a “pre-existing bias in Home Office enforcement” accelerated bias in Britain’s visa process, the JCWI added.
“Were delighted the Home Office has seen sense and scrapped the streaming tool. Racist feedback loops meant that what should have been a fair migration process was, in practice, just ‘speedy boarding’ for white people,” said Core Crider, founder and director of Foxglove.
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This win marks the first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision in the UK, and the JCWI stated that the Home Office’s decision “effectively concedes the claim”.
Chai Patel, legal policy director at JCWI, welcomed the decision and called for reform to the immigration system.
“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software,” he said.
“The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out,” Patel added.
The Home Secretary confirmed a new interim process for visa applications will be put in place and has agreed to implement legal protections demanded by the JCWI and Foxglove. These include Equality Impact Assessments and Data Protection Impact Assessments for the new system.