With an increasing demand across Europe to bring down immigration numbers, several countries are resorting to digitally strip-searching asylum seekers to verify their personal details. The UK and Norway have had such powers in place for years, but in 2017 Germany and Denmark expanded their laws to enable immigration officials to extra data from asylum seeker’s phones. Similar legislation has now been proposed in Belgium and Austria as they take a harder stance on fake asylum seekers.
European governments, which are under pressure to deal with the influx of migrants, are increasingly turning to mobile forensics to verify the asylum seekers’ identity and to conduct security checks. Such techniques allow officials to extract a smartphone’s messages, location history, and Whatsapp data, which can end up being used against the phone owner.
Digital Life Lines Being Used Against Refugees
Smartphones are used by migrants and refugees as a tool to find and share relevant information during their journey. It allows them to keep in touch with loved ones but also lets them check Facebook groups that warn of border closures, receive tips on how to avoid border control, be made aware of policy changes and alerts them to scams to watch out for.
Relief Web, an online source of humanitarian information on global crises, says this extraction of their data raises issues such as the rights of the person whose personal information is being searched: and, overall, the digital vulnerability of these individuals. The group warns that: “Smartphones come with the promise of giving access to a wealth of data, and thereby the assumption that they will ultimately provide more accurate information. Yet what is searched for and how the information is interpreted is what really matters.”
A spokesperson for BAMF, Germany’s immigration agency said: “The analysis of mobile phone data is never the sole basis on which a decision about the application for asylum is made.” According to BAMF, the phone data is used to check for inconsistencies in the person’s story and if their story does not match the meta-data this would warrant further investigation.
Denmark Turning to Social media
Denmark has taken this a step further by asking asylum seekers for their Facebook passwords. Using their profile, a caseworker will then use their Facebook data to verify their details. Critics of this practice have raised concerns that it is unconstitutional, infringes on their right to privacy and treats migrants like criminals.
Michala Clante Bendixen of Denmark’s Refugees Welcome movement said: “In my view, it’s a violation of ethics on privacy to ask for a password to Facebook or open somebody’s mobile phone. For an asylum seeker, this is often the only piece of personal and private space he or she has left.”