Racist Technology in Action: The UK Home Office’s Sorting Algorithm and the Racist Violence of Borders

In 2020, two NGOs finally forced the UK Home Office’s hand, compelling it to abandon its secretive and racist algorithm for sorting visitor visa applications. Foxglove and The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) had been battling the algorithm for years, arguing that it is a form of institutionalized racism and calling it “speedy boarding for white people.”

The “streamlining algorithm” assigned color codes to applicants based on various factors, including nationality, sorting applications into those needing further scrutiny and those eligible for approval. The system faced criticism for its automatic processing and the creation of a “secret list of suspect nationalities” subjected to stricter review and likely rejection.

Crucially, the algorithm featured a devastating feedback loop: visa decision rates determined the countries on the list of “suspected nationalities,” heightening the likelihood of rejection for applicants from these countries.

This covert discrimination had a profound impact on individuals, families, and organizations:

It had got so bad that academic and nonprofit organisations told us they no longer even tried to have colleagues from certain countries visit the UK to work with them.

The UK Home Office ultimately decided to abandon the algorithm after Foxglove and JCWI initiated legal proceedings.

This racist visa assessment algorithm is just one example of the broader racist violence of border regimes. Contemporary “smart” borders are themseleves a complex amalgamation of technologies, including databases, digital IDs, fences, camera surveillance, drones, and facial recognition.

For those interested in delving deeper into technology and border regimes, Aizeki, Mahmoudi, and Schupfer have published a collection of essays by organizers, journalists, and scholars worldwide. The essays explore how they are “employing creative tools to subvert the status quo, organize globally against high-tech border imperialism, and help us imagine a world without borders.”

See Home Office to scrap ‘racist algorithm’ for UK visa applicants at The Guardian, Borders and Bytes at Inquest, and Resisting Borders and Technologies of Violence at Haymarket Books.

The Digital Freedom Fund has written an overview (PDF) about the case against the UK home office.

Image: Cover from the Resisting Borders and Technologies of Violence book.

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