Berlin, February 17, 2020 – The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) routinely analyses data from refugees’ smartphones. This data carrier evaluation is expensive, non-transparent, generates hardly usable results and violates fundamental rights, says the Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (GFF, Society For Civil Rights) in a study published today in English.
The study “Invading Refugees’ Phones: Digital Forms of Migration Control” examines the data carrier evaluation introduced by the BAMF in 2017. If asylum seekers cannot present valid passports or passport replacement documents, the BAMF is entitled to extract and analyze data from data carriers such as phones in order to check their owner’s stated origin and identity. Among the data analyzed are country codes of contacts, incoming and outgoing calls and messages, browser history, geodata from photos as well as email addresses and usernames used in applications such as Facebook, booking.com or dating apps. Notably, the BAMF carries out this data analysis regardless of any concrete suspicion that the asylum-seekers made untruthful statements regarding their identity or country of origin.
“Smartphones contain some of our most sensitive and personal data, whether it’s bank account details, messages or photos. The confidentiality of such data is protected by the right to privacy and state access needs to be well justified. By screening the mobile phones of tens of thousands of refugees without any concrete suspicion, the BAMF is blatantly violating fundamental rights – without even producing meaningful results”, says Lea Beckmann, lawyer at GFF and co-author of the report.
Since the beginning of data carrier evaluation in 2017, the BAMF has read out a total of about 20,000 mobile phones of asylum seekers and invested more than 11 million euros to acquire and support the necessary technologies. Between January 2018 and June 2019, about a quarter of data carrier evaluations already failed at the first stage due to technical problems. More than half of the data carrier evaluations that were carried out successfully proved to be unusable. In only one to two percent of the cases did the evaluation result in a contradiction to the information provided by asylum seekers themselves. In all other cases, the test confirmed asylum seekers’ submissions.
“The BAMF systematically invades the mobile phones of people who, in practice, have no access to legal remedies. Only the Federal Constitutional Court can declare the underlying law unconstitutional and overturn it. The legal proceedings paving the way towards such a decision are long and costly. For the individual person, help will come too late,” Beckmann criticizes. “We want to close this gap in legal protection. That is why we are currently working with affected persons as well as with committed lawyers to prepare legal action”.
For the study, journalist Anna Biselli and GFF lawyer Lea Beckmann comprehensively researched and evaluated numerous available sources. These include data carrier evaluation reports, asylum files, internal BAMF regulations such as a user manual for reading mobile data carriers and training documents for BAMF employees, documents from the legislative process, statements by legal scholars, refugee organizations and associations, as well as information that was made public by parliamentary inquiries. In addition, findings from various background conversations with refugees, lawyers and legal scholars, procedural advice centers and human rights organizations in Germany and other European countries were included.
The study “Invading Refugees’ Phones: Digital Forms of Migration Control” and infographics are available at:
The German version of the study, “Das Smartphone, bitte! Digitalisierung von Migrationskontrolle in Deutschland und Europa”, was published on December 27th, 2019, and is available at:
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