Dutch Foreign Ministry using discriminatory algorithm for visa applications
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses algorithms that can encourage discrimination when assessing visa applications. The Dutch Data Protection Authority (AP) has summoned Minister Wopke Hoekstra to defend the use of this profiling software in person, a spokesperson for the regulator confirmed to NRC.
It involves the 90-day Schengen visas that are mandatory for all non-EU residents who want to visit the Netherlands. In the past, the Dutch embassies handled these visas. But that system was replaced by digital services in recent years. Travelers take their documents to an office of the company VFS Global - a multinational the Dutch government hired to handle visa applications. VFS digitizes the applications and sends them to Foreign Affairs, where some 118 officials assess their eligibility for a visa.
For that assessment, the Foreign Affairs officials use the “Information Supported Decision Making” algorithm. It advises the officials whether they should study an application “briefly” or “intensively” based on the applicant’s nationality, gender, age, and place of application. The people in the quick review stack get their visas much more often than those in the intensive review stack.
Last year, the Ministry’s data protection officer Niels Westerlaken urged the Ministry to immediately stop “profiling visa applicants” with this algorithm, warning that it could quickly lead to discrimination. He pointed out that the algorithm automatically labels all young men from Suriname for intensive assessment and that screams of institutional racism. The Ministry ignored the advice, according to the newspaper.
“We know that he gave critical advice about the visa system,” an AP spokesperson told NRC. “It is a worrying issue. We had several conversations with him then and demanded documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now we have invited the Minister. That is not optional.”
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told the newspaper that the AP had requested additional information “about the necessity and proportionality of data processing’ in visa procedures.