Germany moves to seize phone and laptop data from people seeking asylum

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Since 2015, Germany has welcomed more refugees than any other country in Europe. Now, amid mounting public criticism over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policies, the famously privacy-conscious country is poised to pass a new law aimed at strengthening border security — at the expense of asylum seekers’ privacy. A draft law announced by the interior ministry last month would allow German authorities to seize data from the smartphones, laptops, and tablets of people seeking asylum in the country, in order to determine their identities and nationalities. Previously, officials were only allowed to seize personal data with the consent of asylum seekers; the proposed law would make it mandatory to comply with such requests. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) says the measure is targeted toward asylum seekers who arrive in Germany without passports or with forged documents, and it is likely to be endorsed by Merkel’s cabinet. But rights groups describe the proposed law as a disproportionate violation of privacy rights, adding that it could further strain relations between asylum seekers and authorities. Refugees who have already been settled in Europe say they would have been uneasy with handing over their smartphones to border agents, though they acknowledge that they would have had little choice in the matter. “You don’t feel that you have the right to say no,” says Lily*, a 23-year-old who fled religious persecution in her native Iran and received asylum in the UK last year, after traveling across Europe with her mother and brother. (She requested that her real name not be disclosed.) “You’re really in a bad situation and you think, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you whatever you want, just help me.’” Smartphones have played an integral role for many who have fled war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan in recent years. The devices have allowed them to stay in touch with family back home, through social media or messaging services like WhatsApp, or to navigate often dangerous trips across borders. At the same time, European governments have been looking to leverage smartphone data and other technologies to more accurately track the flow of refugees across borders. Last year, Frontex, the EU border agency, called on technology companies to develop new ways to manage the flow of asylum seekers across the continent, including mobile apps that would track their location. Immigration officials in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands also confiscate and analyse mobile phones to determine the identity of asylum seekers without documentation.