German authorities now have the legal right to analyze asylum seekers' smartphone data as a means of determining their identity and country of origin. It is a step long past due, writes Christoph Hasselbach.
Accessing smartphone data is just one of several steps in the right direction. By using this data, together with other measures such as electronic speech and dialect analysis, authorities are now much better able to ascertain an asylum seeker's identity in cases of doubt. However, all of this comes two years too late.
About 60 percent of refugees arrive in Germany without identity papers, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Many say their papers were lost or stolen during their journey. Yet astoundingly, most have smartphones, which can be easily used to capture and store documents.
The reason for this is clear: Word quickly spread that Syrians were having the easiest time receiving protection in Germany. Many arrivals claimed to be Syrian who were not. A lot of these fraudulent cases could have been uncovered had authorities had the legal go-ahead to analyze smartphone data beginning in fall 2015. Routes could have been traced, and country codes and messaging languages would have given clear indications.
Instead, due to the bottleneck of applications, asylum status for Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans was for months decided on paperwork alone - that is, based on the applicants merely filling out questionnaires. That left the door wide open to fraud.
Clearly much fell through the cracks even during individual talks between applicants and BAMF staff. The case of German military officer Franco A. is perhaps the most bizarre yet to shed light on the shortcomings of refugee processing. The alleged right-wing extremist was arrested on suspicion of terrorism, but not before he successfully applied as a Syrian refugee despite not even being able to speak Arabic. It was an "error at all levels," said BAMF head Jutta Cordt.
Franco A.'s case worker conducted an 80-minute conversation with him that "omitted really pressing questions," she said. No one knows how many such incorrect decisions German authorities may have made. There are legendary cases of asylum seekers using multiple identities at different locations to successfully receive social benefits several times over. This includes Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, killing 11.
The right to know
According to the new regulations, smartphone access is permissible only when other means of ascertaining identity fail or there is doubt. Those who have nothing to fear should anyway be prepared to provide everything needed to accomplish this task. There is therefore no question regarding excessive interference in people's personal rights. It is not only refugees or asylum seekers who have rights, but also the society taking them in - the right to know "who is coming to us," as politicians always like to say. Except it is exactly this that for a long time many politicians did not want to know. Fortunately, this time is now over.