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Image: picture alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

Germany to test speech recognition tech on refugees

May 26, 2017

German authorities could have identified Islamist and far-right terror suspects earlier if it had used available language recognition software, a newspaper has alleged. But critics doubt the efficacy of the technology.


Germany's immigration authority is facing criticism for failing to use new language recognition software to identify the country of origin of asylum-seekers who appear without ID.

Friday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung alleged that the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) had access to such software last year but decided against testing it - partly because of Germany's privacy and data protection laws.

According to the paper's unnamed BAMF sources, the authority gathered proposals for the use of language and dialect recognition software from German and Israeli IT firms in 2016 but had only begun testing it this year.

Read more: Voice analysis: an 'objective' diagnostic tool based on flawed algorithms?

Around 60 percent of asylum-seekers arrive in Germany without ID papers and determining their country of origin is often a laborious process that impedes Germany's efforts to deport rejected asylum-seekers.

The newspaper claimed that the software could have helped to identify two men who applied for asylum and went on to carry out or plan attacks in Germany:Anis Amri, a Tunisian who used several different identities - including some Egyptian - before driving a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin in December, and Franco A., a far-right German soldier who after receiving protected status in Germany by falsely presenting himself as a Syrian refugee is thought to have planned a "false flag" terrorist attack.

Fahndungsfotos des gesuchten Tunesiers Anis Amri
Anis Amri was a rejected Tunisian asylum-seeker who carried out a truck attack in Berlin in DecemberImage: picture alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

Filtering out

But, Frank Herrmann, a data policy spokesman for the German Pirate Party, argued that in both cases it is not clear how the software would have helped. Amri had already been registered, rejected, and incarcerated as an asylum-seeker - that is, the authorities already knew that he wasn't a war refugee and had even held him in a deportation cell.

"Whether or not some software would have registered that too - it wouldn't have made a difference. They already knew," he said. "As for Franco A. - he never even spoke Arabic, but French. It's really nonsense, this software."

Israeli intelligence agencies, like the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States, have been known to be honing technology that can identify different Arabic dialects for some time, and the German Interior Ministry confirmed to DW that it was planning to test Arabic dialect recognition software in interviews with asylum-seekers.

Stephan Dünnwald, of the Bavarian Refugee Council, said language analysis is currently so time-consuming that it is only done in a few cases when an authority decides it has security concerns.

"Then the refugee has to bring a certified interpreter - which the refugee has to pay for themselves," he said. "This interpreter can then give information on whether they are speaking Syrian Arabic or Egyptian Arabic or something else. But it all entails a logistical effort that the BAMF often can't do."

Practical problems and privacy rights

Dünnwald had his doubts about how accurate software could be, partly because in his experience a lot of the commercially available language recognition apps - often marketed as help for immigrants living in a new country - are "simply rubbish."

Registrierung von Flüchtlingen Fingerabdruck
Germany already collects biometric data of all asylum seekersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Reichel

Herrmann was less skeptical about the software capabilities, but he said he wondered how much practical use it could be - even if it was accurate.

"It might be an indicator, but someone's dialect doesn't necessarily have anything to do with their current situation," he said. "Let's say there's a big difference between Jordanian Arabic and Syrian Arabic - what if a Jordanian has married and moved to Syria and lived there for 20 years and now has to flee the war? The software says: yes, that's a Jordanian dialect. And? What value does that have?

"The claim that this software would solve some problem is just wrong," he concluded. "It wouldn't have made a difference. Most of the terrorist attacks aren't carried out by refugees but by people who were born here."

For its part, the government's federal data protection commissioner's office told DW in a statement that the BAMF had not informed it of the details of the language recognition software, or how it would be used - and so could not comment further.

The German government is continually tightening regulations to allow closer surveillance of asylum-seekers - the parliament has recently approved a law to allow immigration authorities to search asylum-seekers' cellphones, which, according to Herrmann, "is really a violation of the constitution, because there is no concrete suspicion or danger that would justify such a violation of privacy rights."

Not only that, German authorities have also recently started taking biometric photos of asylum-seekers, in order to be able to compare images to a central European database.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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