Home Office scraps ‘racist’ immigration algorithm


Priti Patel

Home secretary Priti Patel
Photo: Shutterstock

From today (7 August), the Home Office will no longer use its “streaming algorithm” to determine immigration cases, an artificial intelligence tool that campaigners allege was just “speedy boarding for white people”.

The decision by the government to scrap the streaming algorithm, came ahead of a judicial review of the artificial intelligence system’s use by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).

Campaigners claim it is the first successful challenge to an AI decision-making system in the UK. The algorithm had been used since 2015 to process visa applications to the UK.

In its submission to the high court, JCWI and the technology justice campaign group Foxglove had argued that the algorithm created three channels for applicants, including a so-called “fast lane” that would lead to “speedy boarding for white people” from the most favoured countries in the system.

A Home Office letter sent to JCWI confirmed that home secretary Priti Patel decided to end the use of the streaming tool to assess visa applications, “pending a redesign of the process,” which would consider “issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality” in automated visa applications. Home Office solicitors pointed out that the announcement of the redesign did not mean that the department accepted the allegations from JCWI.

Greeting the Home Office’s decision, Chai Patel, legal policy director of JCWI, said the department’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 technology justice campaign Foxglove, which supported the judicial review, said: “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 algorithm. Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask experts and the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and how historic biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”

Bates Wells partner, immigration specialist Chetal Patel, told Personnel Today: “People expect the Home Office to be fully accountable. It has a list of ‘low risk’ countries where fewer supporting documents are required in certain applications or perhaps even less scrutiny applied to an application. This has been systemic in the immigration system and is rooted in its foundations.

“It’s no surprise that there are serious concerns that the streaming tool created a hostile environment for certain people.”

She warned, however, that the Home Office would still be looking to streamline applications across the spectrum of immigration matters with AI at the heart of the process.

“It will be interesting to see what the redesigned system will look like and if indeed it is vastly different. The Home Office will be keen to avoid negative headlines in the press, particularly in light of the fact that it needs to be seen to have taken on board the lessons learned from the Windrush scandal.”

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