UK visa applications streaming 'racism'

Released: 2015
Occurred: October 2019

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Since 2015, the UK Home Office filtered visa applications using an algorithmically-driven 'Visa Streaming' traffic light system that assigns a red, amber or green risk level to each applicant. People assigned a red risk level were more likely to be refused. 

The UK government stopped using the system in August 2020 after a legal challenge that accused it of prioritising 'speedy boarding for white people' for the most favoured countries in the system.

Legal challenge

In October 2019, justice advocacy group Foxglove and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) launched a case to legally force the Home Office to explain on what basis the algorithm 'streams' visa applicants. 

Critics had previously raised concerns that the system was discriminating against individuals based on their nationality in a discriminatory form, and violated the 2010 Equality Act

The suit also alleged that the algorithm was not transparent. Aside from admitting the existence of a secret list of 'suspect' nationalities, the Home Office refused to provide meaningful information about how the system worked, inclusing what other factors were used to grade applications.

Having insisted the algorithm was used only to allocate applications and that immigration officers ultimately ruled on them, the Home Office announced in August 2020 that it would settle the suit and halt the use of the system until it had been redesigned considering 'issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality'.

Immigration 'super database'

In April 2021, WIRED reported that a 'secretive' Home Office Data Services & Analytics unit had been collecting data on 650 million people, including data from immigration and border systems, and police and intelligence agencies. 

The 'super database' reputedly 'provides members of law enforcement agencies, such as Border Force, with the names of individuals with previous immigration history, those of interest to detection staff, police or matters of national security.' 

Operator: UK Home Office
Developer: UK Home Office

Country: UK

Sector: Govt - immigration

Purpose: Assess visa applications

Technology: Risk assessment algorithm
Issue: Bias/discrimination - race, ethnicity

Transparency: Governance; Black box; Marketing