Visa streaming process redesign will consider issues of unconscious bias and use of nationality
Home Office suspends use of digital streaming tool for visa applications following legal action by JCWI and Foxglove
09 August 2020
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and the digital rights group Foxglove reported last week that the Home Office had agreed to suspend the use of its algorithmic "streaming tool" for visa applications in response to legal action begun in October 2017.
According to JCWI, the use of the visa streaming algorithm by the Home Office was suspended last Friday "pending a redesign of the process," which will consider "issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality" in automated visa applications.
The Home Office had been using the digital streaming tool since 2015 to automatically sift visa applications and categorise their risk.
According to JCWI, the tool discriminated on the basis of nationality by design. JCWI and Foxglove argued that this was racial discrimination and breached the Equality Act 2010. You can read the groups' grounds of challenge here.
Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI, said last Tuesday:
"Today's win represents the UK's first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office's decision effectively concedes the claim."
Writing on Free Movement, Patel explained: "The algorithm and the tool exacerbated the racism inherent in using nationality as an indicator of risk. It made decisions less accountable and obscured the source of bias by steering decision-makers towards particular outcomes while claiming not to. The bias in the tool was self-amplifying – a risk assigned to a particular nationality would result in more refusals of that nationality, which would in turn feed back to the risk score."
Patel said JCWI were delighted the Home Office had seen sense and scrapped the streaming tool.
Foxglove said on Tuesday:
"This marks the end of a computer system which had been used for years to process every visa application to the UK. It's great news, because the algorithm entrenched racism and bias into the visa system. The Home Office kept a secret list of suspect nationalities automatically given a 'Red' traffic-light risk score – people of these nationalities were likely to be denied a visa. It had got so bad that academic and nonprofit organisations told us they no longer even tried to have colleagues from certain countries visit the UK to work with them."
The Home Office told the Guardian:
"We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.
"We do not accept the allegations Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants made in their judicial review claim and whilst litigation is still ongoing it would not be appropriate for the department to comment any further."
According to BBC News, the suspension of the algorithm means that streaming of visa applications will now be based on information about the specific person. Nationality will not be taken into account.