Douglas Todd: Robots replacing Canadian visa officers, Ottawa report says

Ongoing story, raising legitimate questions regarding the quality and possible bias of the algorithms used. That being said, human decision making is not bias free and using AI, at least in the more straightforward cases, makes sense from an efficiency and timeliness of service response.

Will be important to ensure appropriate oversight and there may be a need from an external body to review the algorithms to reduce risks if not already in place:

Tens of thousands of would-be guest workers and international students from China and India are having their fates determined by Canadian computers that are making visa decisions using artificial intelligence.

Even though Immigration Department officials recognize the public is wary about substituting robotic algorithms for human visa officers, the Liberal government plans to greatly expand “automated decision-making” in April of this year, according to an internal report.

“There is significant public anxiety over fairness and privacy associated with Big Data and Artificial Intelligence,” said the 2019 Immigration Department report, obtained under an access to information request. Nevertheless, Ottawa still plans to broaden the automated approval system far beyond the pilot programs it began operating in 2018 to process applicants from India and China.

At a time when Canada is approving more guest workers and foreign students than ever before, immigration lawyers have expressed worry about a lack of transparency in having machines make life-changing decisions about many of the more than 200,000 temporary visas that Canada issues each year.

The internal report reveals its departmental reservations about shifting more fully to an automated system — in particular wondering if machines could be “gamed” by high-risk applicants making false claims about their banking, job, marriage, educational or travel history.

“A system that approves applications without sufficient vetting would raise risks to Canadians, and it is understandable for Canadians to be more concerned about mistakenly approving risky individuals than about mistakenly refusing bona fide candidates,” says the document.

The 25-page report also flags how having robots stand in for humans will have an impact on thousands of visa officers. The new system “will fundamentally change the day-to-day work of decision-makers.”

Immigration Department officials did not respond to questions about the automated visa program.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland says Ottawa’s sweeping plan “to process huge numbers of visas fast and cheap” raises questions about whether an automated “Big Brother” system will be open to scrutiny, or whether it will lead to “Wizard of Oz” decision-making, in which it will be hard to determine who is accountable.

The publisher of the Lexbase immigration newsletter, which uncovered the internal document, was especially concerned that a single official has already “falsely” signed his or her name to countless visa decisions affecting migrants from India and China, without ever having reviewed their specific applications.

“The internal memo shows tens of thousands of visa decisions were signed-off under the name of one employee. If someone pulled that stunt on a visa application, they would be banned from Canada for five years for misrepresentation. It hides the fact it was really a machine that made the call,” said Kurland.

The policy report itself acknowledges that the upcoming shift to “hard-wiring” the visa decision-making process “at a tremendous scale” significantly raises legal risks for the Immigration Department, which it says is already “one of the most heavily litigated in the government of Canada.”

The population of Canada jumped by 560,000 people last year, or 1.5 per cent, the fastest rate of increase in three decades. About 470,000 of that total was made up of immigrants or newcomers arriving on 10-year multiple-entry visas, work visas or study visas.

The senior immigration officials who wrote the internal report repeatedly warn departmental staff that Canadians will be suspicious when they learn about the increasingly automated visa system.

“Keeping a human in the loop is important for public confidence. While human decision making may not be superior to algorithmic systems,” the report said, “human in-the-loop systems currently represent a form of transparency and personal accountability that is more familiar to the public than automated processes.”

In an effort to sell the automated system to a wary populace, the report emphasizes making people aware that the logarithm that decides whether an applicant receives a visa is not random. It’s a computer program governed by certain rules regarding what constitutes a valid visa application.

“A system that provides no real opportunity for officers to reflect is a de facto automated decision-making system, even when officers click the last button,” says the report, which states that flesh-and-blood women and men should still make the rulings on complex or difficult cases — and will also be able to review appeals.

“When a client challenges a decision that was made in full or in part by an automated system, a human officer will review the application. However, the (department) should not proactively offer clients the choice to have a human officer review and decide on their case at the beginning of the application process.”

George Lee, a veteran immigration lawyer in Burnaby, said he had not heard that machines are increasingly taking over from humans in deciding Canadian visa cases. He doesn’t think the public will like it when they learn it.

“People will say, ‘What are we doing here? Where are the human beings? You can’t do this. People are afraid of change. We want to keep the status quo.”

However, Lee said society’s transition towards replacing human workers with robots is “unstoppable. We’re seeing it everywhere.”

Lee believes people will eventually get used to the idea that machines are making vitally important decisions about human lives, including about people’s dreams of migrating to a new country.

“I think the use of robots will become more acceptable down the road,” he said. “Until the robots screw up.”

Source: Douglas Todd: Robots replacing Canadian visa officers, Ottawa report says

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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