Home Office to scrap 'racist' AI tool for visa applications

"Issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality" will be considered during a redesign, says the Home Secretary

The Home Office is scrapping a controversial AI tool it uses for immigration following claims it creates a "hostile environment" for people applying for UK visas. 

The so-called "streaming algorithm", which the department has used since 2015, will be abandoned from Friday, according to a letter from the Home Office, seen by The Guardian.

In the letter, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the decision was "pending a redesign of the process," which will consider "issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality" in automated visa applications.

The decision to ditch the software comes ahead of a judicial review from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) which will challenge the Home Office's AI system used to filter UK visa applicants. 

The algorithm used a traffic-light system to grade every entry visa application to the UK. It was described as a digital "streaming tool," which assigned a red, amber or green risk rating to applicants. However, campaigners argued that it used racially biased data and the JCWI have suggested the decision to drop the algorithm ahead of the court case represents the UK's first successful challenge against AI-based decision-making system.

"The Home Office's own independent review of the Windrush scandal found it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates," said Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director of JCWI.

"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 such bias and to root it out."

The JWCI claims the algorithm created three channels for applicants, which included a "fast lane" that would lead to "speedy boarding for white people" from countries favoured by the system. 

According to the letter seen by The Guardian, solicitors for the Home Office confirm that the Home Secretary, Patel, "has decided that she will discontinue the use of the streaming tool to assess visa applications, pending a substitute review of its operation.

"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."

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