A civil rights group in Germany says migration authorities may have violated the rights of tens of thousands of asylum seekers by analyzing their mobile phone data.
"Data protection law applies to everyone, including asylum seekers," said lawyer Lea Beckmann in a statement published last Friday by the GFF (Society for Civil Rights).
The GFF, together with a Syrian refugee Mohammad A. and a Berlin lawyer, Matthias Lehnert, has submitted a complaint to the German Federal Data Protection Officer Ulrich Kelber, claiming that German authorities have violated a "fundamental right to digital privacy."
Evaluating cell phones is "simply not compatible" with the law, Beckmann said. "Now it is up to the Federal Data Protection Commissioner to check exactly what BAMF (the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees) is doing and put a stop to violations of the law."
'I was handing him my whole life'
According to the GFF, Mohammed A. was recognized as a refugee in Germany in 2015. During a review of asylum decisions in 2019, BAMF required him to disclose his cell phone data.
"Suddenly the BAMF employee told me I should hand over my cell phone and unlock it. I didn't even know what was happening, nothing was explained to me," the GFF quoted Mohammed A. as saying.
“I was scared of being deported. So I gave him the cell phone. It was like handing him my whole life." The earlier decision granting international protection to Mohammed A., now 30 years old, was upheld.
In May 2020, together with Mohammed A. and two other migrants from Afghanistan and Cameroon, the GFF filed a lawsuit in the administrative courts over the authorities’ actions.
Asylum law permits data evaluation
Under a 2017 amendment to German asylum law, the evaluation of smartphone data is permitted if an asylum seeker is unable to produce a passport or equivalent document, such as an ID. The objective must be to check the identity and nationality of the individual.
Authorities are entitled to analyze phone contacts, incoming and outgoing calls and messages, browsing histories, geodata from photos, email addresses and usernames on platforms such as Facebook or booking.com.
It is not necessary for BAMF to have a suspicion that the asylum seeker has lied about his or her identity or country of origin.
Lack of transparency
The GFF has criticized the lack of transparency about the software used to evaluate phone data, which BAMF has refused to disclose. In a study published in December 2019, it also said the smartphone evaluation was costly and failed to generate usable results. In cases in which it did produce a result, this almost always corroborated the details that had been provided by the asylum seekers, the GFF said.
"In a constitutional state like the Federal Republic of Germany, it is unacceptable that the courts should have to blindly trust what an authority puts before them," Beckmann said.
Correction note: The first version of this article, published on February 9, 2021, included two errors made in the course of translation: Lea Beckmann was quoted as having said "Now we have to check ...", when she actually said "Now it is up to the Federal Data Protection Commissioner to check ...".
The earlier version also quoted Beckmann as having said "... it is unacceptable that the courts should blindly trust ...". Her actual words were "... it is unacceptable that the courts should have to blindly trust ..." .