The UK Home Office has been forced to ‘redesign’ a controversial visa algorithm which has been accused of being a tool for legal discrimination in the visa application process.
The algorithm, known as the ‘streaming tool’, had a controversial component in which applicants were labelled as high or low risk based in part on their nationality.
The algorithm was described as a tool for discrimination due to this component and faced challenges from numerous activist bodies including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and Foxglove.
In the face of such challenges, the Home Office has announced that it will discontinue the use of the tool and ‘redesign’ it for further use going forward.
The Office pledged to carry out a review which will aid address some of the issues raised in the legal challenge.
Announcing the decision, the JCWI produced a statement sent to them by a legal representative to the Home Office.
“In the course of that redesign, our client intends carefully to consider and assess the points you have raised in your Claim, including issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality, generally, in the Streaming Tool. For clarity, the fact of the redesign does not mean that the SSHD accepts the allegations in your claim form. However, the redesign will be approached with an open mind in considering the concerns you have raised,” the statement partly read.
In the absence of the algorithm, a new ‘sifting process’ would be used which relies only on ‘person-centric attributes’ – meaning visa applications would be judged on individual merits rather than being flagged as high risk due to the applicant’s nationality.
Throughout its use, the algorithm was dogged by allegations of discrimination and bias which run counter to the Equality Act 2010.
It worked by assigning a risk score to an application based on factors such as nationality, which critics insisted is discriminatory.
Applications were sorted into red, yellow or green based on their level of risk.
Case workers were expected to quickly grant visas from ‘green’ countries but were scrutinized more if they granted visas to applicants from countries considered high risk, or ‘red’ countries – obviously incentivizing denying applications from such countries.
The JWCI also raised a challenge to the self-fulfilling nature of the system – countries deemed as high risk had more visas refused which in turn further raised the risk score of that country in the algorithm.
With the Home Office sort of accepting culpability by discontinuing the tool, it remains to be seen what new system would come out of this ‘redesigning’ effort and whether that might have its own blind spots.
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