PHONE SEARCHESGerman Court to Rule About Phone Searches of Asylum-Seekers

By Janosch Delcker

Published 14 February 2023

Judges could announce this week if authorities broke the law when they combed an asylum-seeker’s phone to find out where she was from. The searches are common practice — and the ruling could have major consequences.

What right to data privacy do asylum-seekers have? That’s the question at the core of a little-noticed lawsuit in Germany, a country known as a world forerunner on data protection — and a landmark ruling could land as early as this week.

On Thursday, the country’s highest administrative law court in Leipzig is hearing a case over whether authorities broke the law in 2019 when they scanned the phone of an Afghan asylum-seeker with no passport for clues about where she was from.

The court is making a decision over one individual case, but what happened to our client is common practice in Germany,” Lea Beckmann, one of the woman’s attorneys and a member of the legal team at the nonprofit Society for Civil Rights (GFF,) told DW. The plaintiff’s name is being kept secret at her lawyers’ request for fear of repercussions.

Supported by the GFF, she sued Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) over the search of her phone in 2020. In June 2021, a regional court in Berlin ruled in her favor, arguing that authorities had violated the law because they had not exhausted less intrusive means first. But the BAMF challenged the decision and asked the country’s top judges at the Federal Administrative Court to take a second look.

The court could announce its ruling as early as the end of this week’s hearing, and either throw its weight behind the regional judgment or quash it.

The decision will be watched closely by migration authorities around the world, where similar technology is often used in asylum applications. Ahead of this week’s trial, the BAMF said it stood by its practice. 

Clarifying the identity and nationality of asylum-seekers who cannot present identity documents by analyzing mobile devices is fundamentally important for the security of our country and for the accuracy of asylum decisions,” a spokesperson for the BAMF told DW in a written reply to a list of questions.

Beckman, the plaintiff’s attorney, said a ruling could have far-reaching consequences for phone searches. “Should the judges agree with the Berlin court in their reasoning, that would mean that the BAMF would no longer be allowed to analyze cell phones unless the agency has previously exhausted all other measures available to verify information about citizenship,” she said.