Discriminatory UK visa algorithm faces legal challenge

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Comments by Sanwar Ali:

Discrimination is very much in the Spotlight at the moment.   The Home Office is currently being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over whether actions taken by UK visas at the Home Office, which led to the Windrush scandal, are in breach of equality law.   Those sponsored or closely linked to the Home Office should also be investigated.   There continues to be protests in the UK and the US and around the World against racism, following the death of George Floyd a black man in the US.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary earlier this month criticised the Government for suggesting that protests in the UK were only about police brutality in the US and called it “real ignorance”.  Dawn Butler a former Labour minister had the following to say:

“…again not listening and shows no commitment to resolving the issues of racism in our own country…”

Matt Hancock the Health Secretary had the following to say:

“I think, thankfully, this is all based in response to events in America rather than here, but we also must continue the drive here for tolerance and genuine equality of opportunity,”

One of the big issues is that organisations including those in the public sector almost always deny that something is wrong.  The truth does not really matter.  People do not want to admit to misconduct and discrimination.  The Government Legal Department seems to think it is their job to cover up and defend the indefensible.  

In the first court case of its kind in UK legal history, immigrant rights’ groups have launched a legal challenge against the Home Office over its use of a discriminatory, UK visa decision-making algorithm as part of its hostile environment policy. The algorithm is used to review UK visa applications made online.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has been granted a judicial review to challenge the artificial intelligence (AI) system used by the government agency, which it claims unfairly filters UK visa applications made by people from certain countries.

The JCWI’s filing, submitted to the high court, states that the controversial algorithm uses three channels by which UK visa applications are approved, including a fast-track lane that would lead to a ‘speedy UK entry for white people.’

High-risk rating for nationals from certain Countries

According to the JCWI, applications made by nationals from so-called ‘suspect countries’ are being flagged as ‘high-risk’ by the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) department of the Home Office.

The immigrant rights’ group claims that so-called, high-risk visa applications are subject to more intensive scrutiny, while decisions took longer and applicants were much more likely to be refused UK entry.

As a result, applications filtered by the algorithm are racially discriminatory and breach the Equality Act of 2010, says the JCWI.

During the judicial review case, the JCWI said it will argue that the AI tool is not transparent and is far too secretive. The immigrant rights’ group claims that there is a secret list of suspect nationalities.

The JCWI claims that the Home Office has failed to disclose any ‘meaningful’ information about the algorithm in any of its pre-legal action correspondence.

Algorithm discriminatory and unlawful

In pursuing its legal challenge against the Home Office the JCWI, along with Foxglove - a new group campaigning for justice in the technology sector – will urge the court to rule that the algorithm is unlawful. It’s understood that they will call on the court to order the Home Office to cease using the AI tool until a thorough review into its use is undertaken.

The JCWI’s legal policy director, Chai Patel, said: “The Home Office’s ‘streaming tool’ has for years had a major effect on who has the right to come here to work, study or see loved ones.”

“It has been run in a way that, by the Home Office’s admission, discriminates, singling out some people as ‘suspect’ and others as somehow more trustworthy, just because of where they come from. This is the digital hostile environment,” Patel added.

Meanwhile, Martha Dark – a director at Foxglove, said: “Algorithms aren’t neutral – they reflect the preferences of the people who build and use them. This visa algorithm didn’t suddenly create bias in the Home Office, but because of its feedback loop, it does accelerate and reinforce them.”

“Now, when systemic racism is high on the public agenda, is the perfect time for government to reassess this algorithm and all similar systems. The Home Office should scrap the streaming tool and set up a scheme that’s fair for everyone, regardless of colour or creed,” Dark added.

Home Office says inappropriate to comment on legal proceedings

A Home Office spokesperson said that it would be ‘inappropriate to comment amid ongoing legal proceedings.’

Use of the algorithm is said to assess whether a UK visa application requires further scrutiny from UKVI officials. If an application is subject to an additional review, the final outcome is determined by a human decision maker.

Earlier this year, the Home Office refused to disclose details concerning which countries were considered ‘high-risk’ by its algorithm.

In response to campaigners calling for the list to be disclosed, the Home Office responded with a completely redacted list of countries across different risk categories.

Hostile environment policy

The news of the JCWI’s legal challenge comes amid reports that the UK’s hostile environment immigration policy will be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and orders by Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to fingerprint migrants attempting to reach the UK by crossing the English Channel.

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