Germany: Will foreigners′ private data be unprotected? | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.06.2021

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Germany: Will foreigners' private data be unprotected?

The German government wants to centralize the storage of personal data of foreigners. This is intended to improve efficiency. But experts warn of data leaks that could lead to persecution.

Shelves with files in a German courthouse

The introduction of a central database for all foreign residents' files is met with criticism

Germans take data protection seriously. And with good reason: Their experience under two dictatorships in the 20th-century have made people extremely aware of the dangers.

This becomes even more apparent whenever the state wants to collect more private information. For example, a weekslong controversial debate was recently mounted about what data should be available in the federal government's coronavirus contact-tracing app. In the end, a compromise was agreed: Data could be collected if stored anonymously and decentrally.

Central database

This is not the case in a draft bill that was approved this week. The bill allows data on foreigners living in Germany to be collected centrally, including in some cases highly sensitive personal information, such as political beliefs and sexual orientation. Experts warn that this could pose a danger to those affected.

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The Central Register of Foreigners (AZR), the database that is to be expanded, already exists. Every non-German who stays in the country for more than three months has a file. In the case of refugees, additional information is stored, such as fingerprints and information on health status. The new law would add people's German addresses, their foreign identification number, and asylum files and court rulings on the asylum process, among other things.

Until now, this information has been stored by approximately 600 local foreigner offices. Now it will move to the central register, where it will then be available to a large number of authorities: including job centers, the federal police and youth welfare offices. There are about 150,000 people authorized to access them, who can easily find individuals' most intimate details.

Thilo Weichert

Data protection activist Thilo Weichert fears that the secret services of persecuting states will get access to refugees' personal information

Thilo Weichert of the German Association for Data Protection told DW that there is nothing wrong in principle with more digitization of foreigners' data. For example, asylum applications are often delayed when people move to different parts of the country. Files are often exchanged between authorities by mail and sometimes get lost.

An asylum-seeker from Iraq told DW that this is how highly sensitive documents from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) ended up in the mailbox of the person who moved into his house after he left. Duplicate registration of individuals by authorities can also have devastating consequences for asylum seekers. A centralized database would prevent this.

Data on a 'silver platter'

But Weichert, as well as numerous experts — among them charities, LGBTQ associations, privacy experts and even some administrators — believe that the law is unbalanced and flawed. Rarely have experts been as united as they were at a hearing on May 3, saying the draft focused on the benefits for the authorities but paid little attention to the rights of those affected. They would not have the opportunity to know what happens to their data and who can access it.

"I also assume that the secret services of the persecuting states have employees in the German authorities," Weichert said. With the AZR, "data from people who are politically persecuted would now be delivered to them on a silver platter." There is hardly any control by the authorities over who sees the data.

Protest in support of a lesbian asylum-seeker from Uganda

Orientation, which is often documented in refugees' files, can be grounds for persecution

Nasty surprise

This is shown by the experiences of Amin L. (whose full name is known to DW but being protected here). He came to Germany as an asylum-seeker. In his home country, he said, he is on a death list.

Amin learned German, made rapid progress and began training as a geriatric nurse. This gave him good prospects for a residence permit. He duly wrote in a Facebook group about his experience of the Skilled Worker Immigration Act as a way to come to Germany legally.

Shortly afterward, he received a message via Facebook: The sender asked him not to give refugees false hope. As proof that he was a civil servant and therefore a person of authority, the sender sent an extract from the AZR the next day. This contained personal information, including Amin L.'s address.

Amin became afraid, suspecting that the persecuting state would now also have access to his data and possibly target him in Germany as well.

"I was shocked," he said. "that something like this could happen in Germany. I no longer felt safe, I got out of my apartment and seriously considered leaving the country." Despite filing charges against the sender of the messages, the prosecutor's office investigated for only a short time and then dropped the case.

Journalists from the German public broadcaster ARD later found out that the perpetrator, in this case, was not a secret service agent, but an employee at the job center. The fact that an employee of any authority can gain unhindered access to sensitive information could indicate that the AZR is not sufficiently protected against being misused.

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Harsh criticism

The government's draft has also met with opposition from politicians. Luise Amtsberg, a spokeswoman on refugee policy for the Greens, told DW: "We are responsible for the people who have sought protection in Germany. Now we are exposing them to danger." In addition, she said, the massive encroachment on the informational self-determination of foreigners is not justified.

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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