German justice ministers are discussing how to use social media to help in police investigations. Some police departments have already successfully tried the approach - but data protection authorities are very concerned.
"+++ Murder of Andrea B. - CCTV pictures exist +++ the Hanover police are looking for a person who used the bank card of murder victim Andrea B. to withdraw money from a cash dispenser …"
The text, a sample post from the Facebook page of the regional police of Lower Saxony, is followed by the request that all relevant information be passed on by phone or e-mail. A link to the website of the police directs Facebook users to a page with the CCTV pictures of the suspect at the cash dispenser.
A quick way to find witnesses
The state of Lower Saxony is at the forefront of using Facebook to help in their investigations. Police in Hesse also use the social media site, and soon officers across Germany could be following suit. Regional justice ministers hope the new approach will help solve crimes, said Hesse Justice Minister Jörg-Uwe Hahn at a summit of the ministers last week, but the question of whether this practice is in line with data protection rights and the rule of law is still up for discussion.
The Hanover police department was the first to set up a Facebook page in 2011. Since June, Lower Saxony is centrally coordinating its searches via Facebook. And the new measure is proving to be a success, according to Frank Federau, press spokesman for the Lower Saxony police. In the case of Andrea B., for example, Federau said they received numerous clues from Facebook users.
"Through Facebook, we very quickly reach many teenagers and young people - and, especially in this age group, we depend heavily on information and clues from witnesses," he explained. And, as is the case with the majority of Facebook users, criminal offenders are also often young people.
The Facebook page of the Lower Saxony police has already several thousand "friends" who are all kept up to date on the police's current manhunts. The users of the page can also share information from the police website, comment, or "like" the page, which will make it visible to all their Facebook friends.
"We know that our system is widely accepted, and we often get information and tips from our users," said Federau. "We've already solved 10 crimes where the first hint came via Facebook."
Data protection issues
But while the police may be enthusiastic, data protectionists are skeptical. Their strong criticism has led the Lower Saxony police to modify its Facebook-aided investigations.
In the past, information about the suspect was put directly on the Facebook page, which meant it was placed on a server in the US. This is against the law, explained Rainer Hämmer, deputy data protection commissioner of Lower Saxony. According to Hämmer, data is only allowed to be passed on when the person in question agrees or when the law explicitly permits it.
"Such data can only legally be passed on within Germany or the European Union. For the data to be passed on to third countries – like the US – this is only permitted in really exceptional cases. And those cases are put down in laws on the federal or the regional level. Police investigations via Facebook are clearly not mentioned here," Hämmer told DW. As a result, data on suspects is now restricted to the servers of the Lower Saxony police.
But data protection authorities have further criticisms about the practice. "What is once on the Internet can't just be removed. You can delete it from your server, but there is no way that you can get back data that has been copied to some other servers," said Hämmer. Experts warn that this could endanger the reintegration of former offenders into society – on the web they would continue to be marked as criminals.
Hämmer has concerns about Facebook in particular: the website is already under fire for a lack of privacy and its policy of handing out information to other companies for advertising purposes. Hämmer believes that it's morally dubious for the state to be using the website.
The Lower Saxony police force takes such concerns seriously, but it also seeks to protect the victims of crimes. Federau said anything that is posted is first given the green light by a judge, and comments posted on the page are continuously monitored to prevent misuse - such as, for instance, the mobbing of suspected offenders.
"With investigations using Facebook, you of course have to be very careful – it's only a means of last resort for us," said Federau. "We don't use Facebook if someone stole a chicken. We only do this in the case of significant crimes."