The Home Office is set to shelve an allegedly racist visa algorithm following a landmark legal challenge by campaigners.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and tech justice organisation Foxglove, which joined forces to sue the Home Office over its use of the system, say the decision marks the first successful legal challenge of an algorithmic decision system in the UK.
During the course of the litigation, which is ongoing, lawyers representing the Home Office admitted that the department retains a secretive list of suspect nationalities that automatically gives migrants from certain countries a “red” risk score. Once a red score has been issued, migrants are significantly less likely to secure a visa.
JCWI and Foxglove had called for a judicial review and taken the Home Office to court over the use of the algorithm. But before it would have had to defend the system in court, the Home Office decided to give into the campaigners’ demands and scrap the algorithm, which had been in place for five years.
The campaign groups claimed that the algorithm was opaque, discriminatory and established a feedback loop. Foxglove said the system was more likely to reject individuals from “suspect” nations. These rejections were then used by the algorithm to refine the list of suspect nations, thereby locking in certain countries.
People who were given a higher risk score were subject to greater scrutiny. According to Foxglove, their applications “were approached with more scepticism, took longer to determine, and were much more likely to be refused. JCWI argued this was racial discrimination and breached the Equality Act 2010.”
The Home Office said that the streaming tool would no longer be used from 7 August and that it would redesign its systems this autumn. In the meantime, it plans to use “person-centric attributes (such as evidence of previous travel)” rather than nationality.
Chai Patel, legal policy director of JCWI, said in a statement: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates.
“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”
Cori Crider, founder and director of Foxglove, added: “We’re 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.
“What we need is democracy, not government by secret algorithm. Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and make the systems transparent so biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”
A Home Office spokesperson told NS Tech: “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 on-going it would not be appropriate for the Department to comment any further.”
The Home Office did not respond to a follow-up question about which claims it rejected.