Tracked, read out, destroyed: smartphones of people on the move in the focus of state authorities

Lea Beckmann, Matthias Monroy, Milena Zajovic, Andreas Grünewald

The smartphone is always with us, helps us keep in touch, find our way. Accordingly, smartphones are indispensable for people on the move. In Germany, Europe and around the world, however, smartphones of refugees are being increasingly targeted by Frontex, the police and migration authorities. What is happening? Why? And what can we do about it?

What would you take with you, if you had to flee? Whether the departure is hasty or planned, there will most probably be a smartphone in your pocket.

Smartphones enable us to stay in touch with family and friends, store memories or important documents, help with navigation and translation. However, the extensive data on smartphones is also of interest to police, border and migration authorities. Frontex locates smartphone signals to identify escape routes and prevent people from entering the EU. In some cases, border guards deliberately destroy smartphones of people on the move to prevent human rights violations from being documented and punished. In Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and other authorities read out the smartphones of many asylum seekers to confirm information about their identities and nationalities.

Against this background, we would like to discuss:

How and by whom are smartphones used to monitor people on the move? Are there possibilities to take legal and political action against this?

How widespread is the practice of confiscating and reading out smartphones of people on the move by German authorities? What is the legal base for this practice, what can be  and has been done against it?

In how far do repressive policies at the external borders of the European Union target smartphones?

And in how far are smartphones also an instrument of empowerment, how often is data from smartphones used to expose and fight injustice?

During the course of the event, Brot für die Welt (German NGO) will launch an online tool ( ) that addresses the ambivalent role of the smartphone as a means of oppression and empowerment using short texts and interviews from Croatia, Niger, Mexico – and, of course, also from Germany.