​German Authorities to Be Challenged on Refugee Phone Searches

The Society for Civil Rights (GFF) is conducting a comprehensive study on the invasive search and inspection of asylum seekers' mobile phones by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

If refugees arriving in Germany cannot show a valid passport, BAMF routinely examines data on their mobile phones. GFF wants to have this procedure, which it claims violates refugees' rights, reviewed by the courts.

Some people deported based solely on mobile phone data

Many people who arrive in Germany after fleeing their home countries cannot present a valid passport. This is very common for refugees. However, if they cannot prove their identity with a passport or other document they may be deported based solely on data that authorities find on their mobile devices. Inspecting mobile phones and other devices is supposed to ensure compliance with the legal obligation of many people to leave the country.

The data that BAMF obtains from mobile devices in this way is evaluated in two steps: It is first extracted and analysed, with the results of the evaluation being saved in a report. In the second step, this report may be released by an accredited BAMF lawyer and used in the individual's asylum procedure. The report comprises a variety of personal information, including the country code for incoming and outgoing calls, messages, contact information, and web pages the owner has visited.

BAMF does not ensure that access to particularly sensitive and private personal data is not granted. In view of the extensive, often very intimate data stored on smartphones, the search and inspection of mobile phones represents a particularly serious and extensive violation of the privacy of those affected. Because they are separated from home, family, and friends, mobile phones often play a particularly central role in the lives of refugees.

BAMF system prone to errors

The mobile phone readout that BAMF uses is also extremely error-prone. For new mobile phones, for example, the data set is too small. Older mobile phone models are not supported by the BAMF program, and contradictory results occur when a mobile phone has been used by several people. It is very rare for the results to contradict the information regarding identity that the asylum seeker had already provided. Between January to October 2018, only about 30 percent of the mobile phone data evaluations carried out were subsequently consulted at all during the asylum procedure. What's more, the results of these reports deviated from the information that their owners provided in only 2 percent of cases.

This shows how disproportionate the results are to the blatant encroachment on the rights of thousands of people whose mobile phones are searched. GFF wants the courts to review BAMF’s procedure and is searching for people who would be willing to be plaintiffs in the proceedings.

At the moment, little is known about how the software used to read and analyse the information obtained from mobile phone and other data devices actually functions. In light of this, the computer scientist and data protection expert Anna Biselli is preparing a pre-litigation study. We thank the Digital Freedom Fund for their support in this research.

You can find further information on the case by clicking here.