German consulates are contracting out more and more visa application services, the Foreign Ministry has confirmed. Critics fear that the practice could increase the risk of data leaks — and the temptation to corruption.
The German government is increasingly outsourcing its consular visa services to companies that have access to private information, the Foreign Ministry has admitted.
Confirming a report in the Tageszeitung, a spokeswoman told DW that the ministry had licensed the Indian company VFS Global to take the passports and biometric data of people applying for Schengen zone visas in nine different states. The ministry added that it was working together with five other external contractors in a total of 18 countries, and that it was putting contracts in a further 14 countries out to tender.
The rise of private visa service providers such as VFS Global — the world's market leader — is part of a growing trend as states cut costs and try to cope with a general rise in visa applications through outsourcing.
The service means that applicants fill in their forms at special Visa Application Centers, where they hand in their passports and, if necessary, give fingerprints or other biometric data, and pay an extra service charge on top of the consulate's processing fees. Founded in 2001, VFS Global already boasts 56 governments as "customers" on its website, with 2,377 service centers in 129 countries. It also just celebrated its 154 millionth visa application.
'Giving up control'
Some politicians in Germany are worried about the trend. "By outsourcing, the state is completely giving up control of an area that is deeply susceptible to bribery," Green party Bundestag member Omid Nouripour told taz.
But Peter Brun, spokesman for VFS Global, dismissed the idea that the company was open to corruption as "impossible." "How can you bribe us? We don't do any decision-making. We just check that the applicants have filled out all the forms and have all the documents they need," he said. "And we have no influence on processing an application faster."
Other critics have raised concerns about passports and other personal data passing through the hands of a private company before and after a visa application is processed by the consulate. Indeed, in 2007 it emerged that VFS Global and the British Foreign Office had accidentally made 50,000 visa applications publicly visible online.
Left party MP Sevim Dagdelen said applicants needed reliable, legally sound visa services. "They can't cut corners to save costs or maximize the profits of third parties," she said, before adding that there was "no alternative" to keeping visa services under state control.
On top of that, as Dagdelen pointed out, EU law requires countries to offer visa application appointments within two weeks for free, and only allows the use of private contractors "in exceptional circumstances."
The Foreign Ministry addressed these concerns in a statement, offering reassurances that "the examination and the decision about the applications, the access to Schengen information systems, as well as the access to visa labels remains reserved for officials of Germany's foreign representative institutions."
Data privacy reassurances
Brun was keen to stress that VFS only deals with administrative matters. "The client government always exactly defines the process, and the equipment and everything," he said. "We only have the data for the processing of the visa to the embassy or consulate. After the visa is granted or not, the data is deleted. We don't store or analyze any data."
That was backed up by the ministry's spokeswoman. "The contractor receives visa applications at a separate location according to the specifications of the consulate," she said. "It is not allowed to assess or reject the applications. It has no access to the visa office, except for a specific room where the application documents and the passports are handed over. For its part, the consulate regularly re-assesses the contractor without warning."
According to the ministry, contracts with service providers oblige the companies to adhere to German data protection laws no matter where they are based and to keep any personal data on servers inside the European Economic Area. "At the Foreign Ministry's request, the Indian firm VFS Global even built a server structure that is exclusively within Germany," the spokeswoman said. "Not only that, external contractors are not allowed to keep visa application data, for example no fingerprints, on its own systems."
"The states see the benefits they have," Brun said. "They don't have to have the infrastructure in the embassies, with long queues, and dozens of counters," he added. "It's cheaper for governments and their taxpayers to outsource this administrative part of a visa process."