Ignoring earlier Dutch failures in automated decision making, and ignoring advice from its own experts, the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to cut costs and cut corners through implementing a discriminatory profiling system to process visa applications.
A joined investigation by NRC and Lighthouse Report reveals how the Netherlands has outsourced a big part of the logistics of its visa application process to VFS Global, a multinational from Dubai, owned by the American investment fund Blackstone. VFS Global gathers all the required documentation from visa applicants.
The next step is that the applications must be assessed. The Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs (in institute with a racism problem, where some employees were referred to as “monkeys”) has implemented an algorithm that sorts applicants into different risk categories. The algorithm uses variables likes gender, age, and nationality as input, leading to risk profiles like ‘Surinamese men aged between 26-40 who applied from Paramaribo’, or ‘Nepalese men aged around 35-40 who applied for a tourist visa’.
Niels Westerlaken, the ministry’s internal Data Protection Officer, advised the ministry to “immediately stop profiling visa applicants to distinguish them partly on the basis of nationality and then treating them unequally on the basis of that distinction.” His advise has been ignored for years now.
In order to justify this cost-cutting through a flagrant human rights abuse, the ministry perpetuates common fallacies like “we want to remove the existing bias in case workers and make more objective decisions” (ignoring the fact that a system like this scales up the remaining bias to the full population) or “every decision is still made by a case worker, the computer doesn’t decide anything” (a purely semantic discussion that uses an overly legalistic definition of what a decision is).
Unfortunately it seems that the Netherlands is starting to get a reputation for its continued use of these types of discriminatory systems. “When searching for a European example of digitisation gone wrong, you look to the Netherlands nowadays,” write Evelyn Austin and Nadia Benaissa in an opinion in NRC.
See: ‘Pas op met deze visumaanvraag’, waarschuwt het algoritme dat discriminatie in de hand werkt. Het ministerie negeert kritiek at NRC, and Ethnic Profiling at Lighthouse Reports.