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UK ditches visa algorithm accused of creating ‘speedy boarding for white people’

The government plans to launch a new system in the fall

The UK is scrapping a controversial algorithm used in visa applications following allegations that it discriminates against certain nationalities.

Since 2015, the “streaming tool” has used a traffic-light system to rank visa applications to the UK. According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), applicants with “suspect” nationalities automatically received a higher risk score, reducing their chances of being granted a visa.

The JCWI believes this led countless skilled professionals to be denied entry to the UK — “just because they don’t come from a rich white country.”

The charity blames this on a feedback loop in the algorithm keeping countries on the secret list of suspect nationalities. Applications from these countries were more likely to be rejected, which led their nationalities to remain on the list. The JCWI argued that this was racial discrimination and breached the Equality Act.

[Read: Trump’s latest immigration ban is bad news for US AI ambitions]

“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software,” said Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI. “The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

The JCWI and digital rights group Foxglove had asked the courts to declare the algorithm unlawful. But before the case could be heard, the British Home Office agreed to scrap the tool, and seek to replace it in the fall. However, the department disputed the claims of racial discrimination.

“For clarity, the fact of the redesign does not mean that the secretary of state for the home department accepts the allegations in your claim form,” Home Office solicitors said in a letter seen by the Guardian.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has nonetheless committed to a full review of the system — including for unconscious bias and discrimination.

Published August 4, 2020 — 14:53 UTC