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A glitch or a feature? Systemic problems with digital proof of immigration status

Digital technology plays a central role in the ongoing reform of British borders after Brexit, and the 2019 launch of the EU Settlement Scheme was a pivotal moment in this transformation. The EUSS introduced an online-by-default process to apply for immigration status and, crucially, an online-only process to evidence it. The decision letter is not an immigration document. Instead, successful applicants need to go online each time they want to view or prove their status. Last year, the “view and prove” service implemented as part of the EUSS was expanded to other immigration routes. This year, the Home Office confirmed it intends to phase out immigration documents altogether and replace them with online checks by the end of 2024.

These technical changes represent a substantive reform of the immigration system. Previously, status holders got to keep a token of their leave to remain, such as a permanent residence card, a biometric residence permit, and so on. Currently, they get no token and their immigration status is not so much retrieved as generated during online transactions conducted through the gov.uk platform.

What is more, the process to “view or prove” status is rather complex. First, status holders must input their credentials to gain access. The credentials are checked against a database of login details, in order to send the status holder a one-time security code to their registered email address, or via text message to their registered telephone number. After this security code is input, the system then uses the credentials to search, retrieve, and compute biometric, biographic, and immigration records from a different set of databases. Finally, its algorithmic logic must determine what status to display for those who have multiple transactional records. Such multiple records will exist for everyone who has renewed, upgraded, or switched their immigration status, or appealed an incorrect decision. Once all these steps are completed, the status holder can view their status online and generate a share code that enables third parties to check that status online. At no point do status holders get a document they could hold on to.

Most often, the automated process described above appears seamless and only takes minutes to complete. When the system glitches, the cracks start to show: if the immigration status is not available or not correct, it can take months to get it resolved. In the past two years, five types of systemic glitches have been shown to prevent access to immigration status for some holders. This is not an exhaustive list. As digital status services develop and evolve, new types of errors are encountered by status holders and reported by their legal representatives and advocacy groups, for example through the3million’s Report It tool. Taken together, these glitches raise serious questions about the transactional design of digital status.

The first type of glitch affected repeat applicants to the EUSS as soon as online checks became mandatory in July 2021. Those who applied again for an upgrade to settled status were losing access to their existing pre-settled status. They could only generate a proof of their pending application during online checks. According to a statement issued by the Home Office in December 2021, signed personally by the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration Kevin Foster, the glitch was caused by the algorithmic logic of digital status services. Where multiple application records were traced during checks, the logic was set to display the most recent transaction as the current immigration status. The ministerial response stated:

“This issue was caused by the logic by which our Status services react to casework events such as applications or grants of status. When the problem was occurring, it was because our service’s logic was to overwrite old statuses with a new one, because we believed this would be the most relevant one to display.”

The second type of glitch was reported publicly as soon as new immigration routes were integrated into the scope of digital status services in April 2022. Since then, the “business logic” has to determine status not just for those who applied repeatedly, but also those who switched routes – and it does not always get it right. One publicised case, for example, involved “a non-EU national holder of Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) leave to remain valid until 2024, who in 2021 was refused status as a durable partner under the EUSS. This person did not challenge the refusal as they had years left on their exceptional talent visa and had a valid biometric residence permit to prove it. And yet, during online checks in 2022 their digital status would only show the irrelevant refusal and not the valid visa.

The third type of glitch affects records that implement tribunal appeals, and was first reported in February 2023. One publicly reported case concerns EUSS appeal implementation. A person who had been refused status but successfully appealed was only able to access the wrongful refusal when logging in to digital services, as instructed, with their identity document number. After specialist intervention they were advised to log in with a new reference number, and that allowed them to generate a proof of settled status issued on appeal. Only one such case was publicly reported but only 163 appeal decisions were implemented under the EUSS at the time of that report. The Home Office has not yet responded to enquiries about the appeal implementation process and the related system glitch.

The fourth type of digital status glitch results in corrupted digital status. In such cases, status cannot be proved online at all as the share code cannot be generated. Affected users can log in and view their status but their photo is missing. If they attempt to generate a share code, they receive an error message. In November 2022, the Home Office acknowledged that problems with user photo can cause status glitches and explained:

“Some facial images are of a low standard for historical reasons – during the early days of the EU Settlement Scheme, the quality threshold for facial images supplied by applicants was deliberately low, to avoid rejecting the initial cohort of applicants. As a result, many images were accepted that would not pass current quality thresholds and may not be usable for the purpose of identifying the applicant. We encourage users of our services to self-report any such images and provide replacement images (…). 

Other problems with the facial images may have a technical root cause linked to connectivity problems between View and Prove and the Home Office Immigration and Asylum Biometric Store (IABS). We are constantly working to mitigate the impact of these connectivity issues and a project is underway to put in place a better system for image retrieval that will address the root cause.

It is possible for users with a poor-quality facial image on their profile to generate a share code. However, when the connectivity issues mentioned above occur, there tends to be overall degradation of the performance of our online services, which can prevent the user from generating share codes.”

This means that even when the algorithmic logic of the status check computes immigration decisions correctly – or when there is only one record to compute – digital status may still glitch due to quality or connectivity issues in immigration data stores.

The fifth type of digital status glitch results in entangled digital status, and it was raised with the Home Office in August 2022. These are arguably the most serious glitches that raise concerns about data protection. Digital status entanglement occurs when one person logs in with their credentials but they can view or share the name, photo, or status of another person. The original glitches reported last year occurred between people whose biographic details were very similar, as they were relatives. However, a recently reported case involved a person with settled status issued under the EUSS who could only generate a proof of status with an unrelated name and a non-EUSS type of visa attached to their correct photo. This glitch was reported to the Home Office in March 2023. It took three months to be resolved. This had a traumatising effect on the status holder, who ­also missed out on employment offers.

The first three types of glitches affect what status is displayed for one person with multiple transactional records: repeat applications, route switches, or decision challenges. The final two types are different, as they also affect those who completed just one transaction and only ever had just one decision issued for them.

Taken together, these glitches show that digital status services are not an immigration document in a digital form. Digital status, as implemented here, is not an object that can be archived and retrieved. It is better understood as a process that draws and computes multiple types of data from multiple data stores to generate a resolved profile for the status holder in real time, and to assign a singular status to that profile if multiple status records are available. When it goes wrong, it momentarily strips the status holder of their legal rights. And, depending on the type of glitch, the fix to it may be months away.

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Kuba Jablonowski

Kuba Jablonowski

Kuba is a lecturer in political geography at the University of Exeter, and a research associate at campaign group the3million. He is also a trustee of Bristol Somali Resource Centre and an associate of Black South West Network, which work on issues of social inclusion and race equality.


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