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JCWI and technology campaign group Foxglove launch legal challenge over Home Office’s use of software to sift visa applications


Groups say shadowy digital 'streaming tool' is using problematic and biased criteria such as nationality

Date of Publication:
30 October 2019

JCWI and technology campaign group Foxglove launch legal challenge over Home Office's use of software to sift visa applications

30 October 2019

The campaign group Foxglove, which seeks to hold technology accountable, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) announced yesterday that they are fundraising for a legal challenge over the Home Office's use of a digital 'streaming tool' to sift through visa applications.

Home Office TechnologyThe groups are seeking to raise £20,000 here on GoFundMe for the challenge. They argue the Home Office is using software that works as a digital 'hostile environment' and is discriminatory.

Foxglove explained: "The Home Office is using a secretive algorithm, which it describes as a digital 'streaming tool,' to sift visa applications. The algorithm scans applications and directs them into a fast lane (Green), a slow lane (Yellow), or a full digital pat-down (Red).

"They've given a shadowy, computer-driven process the power to affect someone's chances of getting a visa. And as best as we can tell, the machine is using problematic and biased criteria, like nationality, to choose which 'stream' you get in. People from rich white countries get Speedy Boarding; poorer people of colour get pushed to the back of the queue."

The Government has refused to explain how the software works, claiming an immigration exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.

Foxglove and JCWI said: "We want to find out exactly what the algorithm is and what it does. We want to force the government to respond as quickly as possible, because every day this situation continues there's a risk people could be suffering unfair visa decisions. People will be missing conferences, jobs, weddings, funerals. Unfair processes hurt them—and they hurt Britain."

The Guardian reported yesterday that the legal challenge will be the first court bid to expose how an artificial intelligence program affects immigration policy decisions regarding entry to the UK.

According to the Guardian, JCWI will argue that the Home Office's streaming tool is a modern version of a visa entry system ruled unlawful by the House of Lords in the 2004 judgment of Regina v. Immigration Officer at Prague Airport and another (Respondents) ex parte European Roma Rights Centre and others (Appellants).

The House of Lords found that immigration officers operating under the authority of the Home Secretary at Prague Airport discriminated against Roma seeking to travel to the UK by treating them less favourably on racial grounds than they treated others.

In response to the challenge by Foxglove and JCWI, a spokesperson for the Home Office told the Guardian: "We have always used processes that enable UK Visas and Immigration to allocate cases in an efficient way.

"The streaming tool is only used to allocate applications, not to decide them. It uses data to indicate whether an application might require more or less scrutiny and it complies fully with the relevant legislation under the Equalities Act 2010."