UK abandons 'racist' visa algorithm

A controversial computer algorithm used by the UK Home Office to grade individuals' visa applications is to be scrapped after being branded "racist" by human rights campaigners.

The streaming tool, which graded each entry application on a traffic light system of green, amber and red, will cease to be used from the end of this week, a government spokesman said.As part of continuing legal action, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and the tech justice organisation Foxglove joined forces to sue the Home Office over the system.During the course of the litigation, lawyers representing the Home Office admitted that the department retained a confidential list of "suspect" nationalities that automatically gave migrants from certain countries a high-risk, red score, significantly lowering the chance of some applicants being granted a visa.JCWI and Foxglove had sought a judicial review over the use of the algorithm, but before the Home Office was required to defend the system in court, the department announced it was abandoning the system, which has been in use for the past for five years.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.”Chai Patel, JCWI legal policy director, added: “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.”The Home Office said that the streaming tool would no longer be used from August 7 and that it would redesign its systems this autumn. In the meantime, it said it would to use “person-centric attributes (such as evidence of previous travel)” rather than nationality in grading visa applications.A department spokesman said: “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 the 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.”

Read more news and views from David Sapsted.

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