European governments are using smartphone data to deport refugees

Europe and its refugees have a complex relationship with the smartphone. On one hand, refugees often depend on smartphones to keep in touch with family who, by definition, can’t be contacted in other ways – you can’t send a letter to someone who’s walking across a continent and sleeping in parks. And they use phones to coordinate their movements with their people traffickers as well.

But at the same time as a phone is an indispensable tool, it’s also a liability. Both Germany and Denmark have empowered their border agencies to seize smartphones and laptops at the border. Belgium and Austria have followed suit. The UK, true to its history as a nation without laws, has been doing this for years; so has Norway.

The data on those devices is then used to figure out refugees’ identities and assess their immigration status.

Anti-refugee sentiment rises across Europe

There’s a political backdrop to all this, of course. The refugee crisis has made a big impact on domestic European politics. The most extreme example is Sweden: with a population of 9 million, Sweden took in over 190,000 refugees, meaning 2% of all the people in Sweden came there to seek asylum.

The Sweden Democrats – Nazis, basically – are ahead in the polls, while even the ruling Social Democrats want to halve refugee numbers. Crime among people from refugee backgrounds is rising, anti-refugee sentiment too.

Phone metadata used to track migration routes

Phone location history is used to track refugees’ routes into the EU; only certain routes are permissible. The Dublin agreement means refugees must seek asylum in the first EU state they arrive at. That usually means the mediterranean states: Greece, Italy, Spain. The EU is using Turkey as a kind of waiting room to its mediterranean states, which goes some way to explaining why the country plays host to 3.5 million refugees.

But those states are already poor, make scarily bad provisions for refugees – many of whom are children or have children – and asylum applications are backing up… and up.

So we can see both sides: of course states want to manage who comes in and out through their borders. (Looks like most of their people want them to, as well.) But of course, refugees would prefer Germany or Sweden to Greece or Italy.

The metadata arms race

To trace a person’s movements across Europe, border agencies use an app called Atos, which makes it possible to pull all the metadata off a person’s phone in just a few minutes.

Right now, it’s an arms race. As states arrogate themselves new powers to search and confiscate, refugees respond with the simple privacy protections you’d expect. They’ll take multiple SIM cards for the same phone, swapping them out and hiding them. Or they’ll just throw their phone over the side of the boat as it hits shore and say it was stolen en route.

If they can use it on refugees…

The chief worry to me is that the tools used to spy on refugees now exist and are in the hands of law enforcement. And we already know that states will find ways and reasons to increase their surveillance of their populations. Are they doing it already? If you ask me, I’d guess not, but then I’d have thought the Edward Snowden revelations sounded a bit paranoid.

But even if you don’t think it matters whether the rights of refugees are violated, once the law and the culture permit those violations against the dispossessed, they move one step closer to being permissible against you.

Getting a VPN can’t protect you against your metadata being accessed – but it can help stop other forms of location tracking, like IP location tracking. If you don’t have one, get one. It’s a vital piece of your privacy protection toolkit.


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