Since 2015, Germany has welcomed more refugees than any other country in Europe. Now, amid mounting public criticism over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policies, the famously privacy-conscious country is poised to pass a new law aimed at strengthening border security — at the expense of asylum seekers’ privacy.
A draft law announced by the interior ministry last month would allow German authorities to seize data from the smartphones, laptops, and tablets of people seeking asylum in the country, in order to determine their identities and nationalities. Previously, officials were only allowed to seize personal data with the consent of asylum seekers; the proposed law would make it mandatory to comply with such requests. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) says the measure is targeted toward asylum seekers who arrive in Germany without passports or with forged documents, and it is likely to be endorsed by Merkel’s cabinet, Reuters reports.
But rights groups describe the proposed law as a disproportionate violation of privacy rights, adding that it could further strain relations between asylum seekers and authorities. Refugees who have already been settled in Europe say they would have been uneasy with handing over their smartphones to border agents, though they acknowledge that they would have had little choice in the matter.
“You don’t feel that you have the right to say no,” says Lily*, a 23-year-old who fled religious persecution in her native Iran and received asylum in the UK last year, after traveling across Europe with her mother and brother. (She requested that her real name not be disclosed.) “You’re really in a bad situation and you think, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you whatever you want, just help me.’”
Smartphones have played an integral role for many who have fled war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan in recent years. The devices have allowed them to stay in touch with family back home, through social media or messaging services like WhatsApp, or to navigate often dangerous trips across borders.
At the same time, European governments have been looking to leverage smartphone data and other technologies to more accurately track the flow of refugees across borders. Last year, Frontex, the EU border agency, called on technology companies to develop new ways to manage the flow of asylum seekers across the continent, including mobile apps that would track their location. Immigration officials in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands also confiscate and analyze mobile phones to determine the identity of asylum seekers without documentation, The Guardian reported last year.
Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, advocacy officer at Privacy International, says such initiatives risk turning a smartphone “into a surveillance device,” which may in turn deter refugees from using their phones for important communications or to gather information.
Lily says that throughout her travel, refugees and smugglers recognized phones as threats to the success of their journeys. The smuggler who first took her out of Iran demanded that she hand over her device for fear that it could be used to track their movements across Europe. That was a common fear among other refugees she met at a camp in Calais, France, where she spent two months before being smuggled into the UK in the back of a truck. Although charities provided basic phones to Lily and other refugees during their stay at Calais, she says many broke or abandoned them before making the trip to England — either under demands from surveillance-wary smugglers, or amid fears that border agents could use their GPS data to trace their routes, and send them back to request asylum in the first EU country they entered.
When asked whether she would have handed over data on her phone or laptop to gain entry into England, Lily pauses. “I think yes,” she says. “Yeah, I would.”
BAMF estimates that the law would have affected about 50 to 60 percent of asylum applications that Germany received last year. That estimate would account for about 150,000 people, according to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which first reported on the draft law. The newspaper also reported that hardware and software will be installed at government immigration sites to scan the devices of people seeking asylum.
“We need to establish the identities of the applicants,” Volker Bouffier, a conservative politician and Merkel ally, told Reuters. “To eliminate any doubts of a person’s origin, we need to use all information available.”
Germany’s data protection laws are among the strongest in Europe, stemming from the country’s history of government surveillance during the Second World War and under Communist East Germany. The German interior ministry says that the collection of refugees’ personal data will be carried out under “strict legal requirements,” and that it will not be used to identify “criminal offenses” unless it is proven that an asylum-seeker used counterfeited documents. The law also states that any personal data must be deleted “immediately” once it is no longer necessary to determine a person’s identity.
German authorities have faced criticism in the past for overstating the number of asylum seekers who arrive with fake passports. In 2015, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said that 30 percent of all Syrian passports received were forged; statistics released later put the figure at about 8 percent.
Refugee advocates say the law could sow deeper distrust between asylum seekers and authorities. “It’s not conducive to building trust toward the authorities, to feel that you’re always under suspicion,” says Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of technology and human rights at Amnesty International. “That’s not a very good start for someone who is trying to establish themselves as a refugee in another country.”
It’s also unclear whether data from smartphones and laptops could be used to accurately determine a refugee’s identity, according to Pirlot de Corbion, of Privacy International. She says it’s common for people in Africa and Asia to share mobile phones, typically for economic reasons, which would make it difficult to match the data on a given device to a specific individual.
Some resettled refugees criticized the German proposal in interviews with The Verge, characterizing it as a move that would further alienate vulnerable populations. “We are already asylum seekers, that’s lower than being a citizen,” says Inna, a 25-year-old who received asylum in France in 2013. Now a student in public administration, Inna says she was subjected to persistent government surveillance and harassment in her home country because of her political activism, which eventually forced her to flee. (Inna requested that the name of her home country be withheld from this article, citing security concerns for friends and family.)
“I can see the reason for doing that if the police see a real cause,” Inna said in a phone interview this week. “But just the fact that you’re an asylum seeker, no — that doesn’t respect human rights.”
But those who have fled war or persecution may be more willing to sacrifice their data if it means gaining asylum in Europe. “It depends on a person’s situation,” says R.S., 34, an Iranian refugee who now works at an association that helps migrants integrate in French society. “I think that if there’s someone who’s in a truly difficult situation, he probably wouldn’t care if authorities go through his personal data because he has bigger problems to worry about.”
Lily, who wants to attend college in the UK and start her own business one day, says she can understand why Europeans would want to carefully screen refugees before granting them asylum. “Sometimes I imagine myself in other countries’ position,” she says. “And I think if other people wanted to come to my country, how my government would want to treat them.”
But she thinks that sensationalist media coverage in the UK has wrongly linked the refugee crisis to concerns over terrorism, leading to aggressive security policies that have gradually curtailed civil liberties for both refugees and Europeans.
“Maybe people have just gotten used to it,” she says, “Maybe we just forgot about our privacy, or maybe we forgot our right to ask why.”