The analysis of refugees’ mobile phone data to ascertain their identity violates their fundamental rights. This was the decision of the Berlin Administrative Court while ruling in the case of a 44-year-old Afghan woman. The verdict puts a question mark on the controversial practice to which the authorities sometimes resort to establish the true identity of asylum-seekers
The controversial use of asylum seekers’ mobile phone data by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) is illegal, according to a decision by the Berlin Administrative Court. The plaintiff was a 44-year-old woman from Afghanistan who was supported in the court case by the Society for Freedom Rights (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte, GFF).
According to the GFF, the Administrative Court assumes that the reading of phone data at the time of application in an asylum procedure is illegal because it is not necessary for the authorities to establish the identity and origin of the asylum-seeker. Anyone who cannot provide identity documents has to hand in his/her mobile phone, tablet or laptop as part of the duty to cooperate. Who refuses, can be searched.
The court judgement now legally calls into question the entire practice of the BAMF, explained GFF lawyer Lea Beckmann: “BAMF violates fundamental rights with its mobile phone data evaluations.” Because of the fundamental importance of the case, the court has allowed a revision of its verdict at the Federal Administrative Court.
The analysis of mobile phone data has been permitted since an amendment to the asylum legislation was made in 2017. The BAMF is allowed to read phone data of an asylum-seeker if they cannot produce any documents to back their claim of identity and country of origin.
Contacts, call lists, browser histories or geodata from photos are analysed in order to obtain information on the identity and origin of asylum-seekers.
According to a GFF study, the analysis of mobile phone data in asylum procedures hardly yields usable results. Since the introduction of the procedure, tens of thousands of asylum seekers’ mobile phones have been read, costing tens of millions of euros, according to a study.
More than half of the evaluations of the data carriers had turned out to be unusable. Only in one to two percent of the usable evaluations were contradictions found with the information that the asylum-seekers themselves had given during their interviews. In all other cases, the test confirmed what the asylum-seekers had said. The BAMF however contested the study, claiming that it did not draw permissible conclusions.
According to GFF, two further lawsuits before the administrative courts in Hanover and Stuttgart have not yet been decided. In addition, the company has filed a complaint with the Federal Data Protection Commissioner.