Rights Violations: German Authorities Still Examining Asylum Seekers' Phones

A new study examines the data carrier evaluation of refugees by German authorities. The result: refugees are subject to second-class data protection.

In its new study, The Society for Civil Rights (GFF) examines how German authorities sniff out refugees’ phones. The aim of data carrier evaluation is meant to be to determine a person’s identity and country of origin. But in reality it violates rights and does not produce any meaningful results.

If an asylum seeker in Germany cannot present either a passport or passport replacement documents, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), is authorized to extract and analyse data from phones and other devices to check their owner's stated origin and identity. Data that is analysed includes the country codes of contacts, incoming and outgoing calls and messages, browser history, geodata from photos as well as email addresses and usernames used in applications such as Facebook, booking.com or dating apps. Notably, BAMF carries out this data analysis regardless of any concrete suspicion that the asylum-seekers made untruthful statements regarding their identity or country of origin.

The study "Invading Refugees' Phones: Digital Forms of Migration Control" examines and assesses how BAMF evaluates refugees’ data and what kinds of results data carrier evaluation has produced so far. For the study, journalist Anna Biselli and GFF lawyer Lea Beckmann comprehensively researched and evaluated numerous sources. These include data carrier evaluation reports, asylum files, internal BAMF regulations, such as a user manual for reading mobile data carriers, and training documents for BAMF employees, as well as information that was made public by parliamentary inquiries.

High costs, useless results

The study found that evaluating data carriers is not an effective way of establishing a person’s identity and country of origin. When data carrier evaluation started in 2017, BAMF has examined about 20,000 mobile phones of asylum seekers. Between January 2018 and June 2019, about a quarter of data carrier evaluations failed at the first stage due to technical problems. When data carrier evaluation does produce results, it usually only confirms what the persons themselves stated during their interviews with BAMF employees.

Results of data carrier evaluation 2018

In 2018, only 2% of data carrier evaluation results contradicted asylum seekers' own statements. Graphic: GFF/Julia Zé

There were already doubts about the effectiveness of data carrier evaluation before the law on Better Enforcement of the Obligation to leave the Country was passed. The law aims to speed up deportations. By introducing data carrier evaluations, legislators hoped to verify a person’s identity, country of origin and grounds for protection more quickly than before. In practice, the procedure has fallen short of these expectations. It has also turned out to be very expensive.

In relation to the limited benefit of data carrier evaluations, the costs of the procedure are clearly disproportionate. In February 2017, the Federal Ministry of the Interior stated that installation costs of 3.2 million euros were to be expected. By the end of 2018, however, 7.6 million euros had already been spent on the system, more than twice as much as originally estimated.

Graphic small en-04

Total costs of reading out and evaluating data carriers: From just under 7 million euros in 2017 to an expected 17 million euros in 2022. graph: GFF/Julia Zé

A blatant violation of fundamental rights

Examining refugees’ phones is, above all, a human rights violation for which Germany has spent millions of euros. Data carrier evaluations circumvent the basic right to informational self-determination, which was laid down by the German Federal Constitutional Court. Refugees are subject to second-class data protection. At the same time, they are especially vulnerable and lack meaningful access to legal remedies.

Germany is not the only country to experiment with digital forms of migration control. BAMF's approach is part of a broader, international trend towards testing new surveillance and monitoring technologies on marginalized populations, including refugees. Individual people, as well as their individual histories, are increasingly being reduced to data records. GFF will combat this trend with legal means: We are currently preparing legal action against the BAMF’s data carrier evaluation.

PDF version of the study: “Invading Refugees' Phones: Digital Forms of Migration Control”

We thank the Digital Freedom Fund for their support in the study.