Geneva - Switzerland proceeds with invasive and biased measures to analyze intimate data from asylum seekers’ smartphones in concrete violation of their privacy rights, assuming that data extraction from personal devices leads to more reliable evidence than people’s own claims about their lives and fears, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said in a statement today.
In 2021, the Swiss Parliament decided to allow the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) to analyze data from smartphones, computers, or devices belonging to asylum seekers allegedly “when their identity, nationality or itinerary could not be established by other means”.
Despite a recent ruling of Germany’s highest administrative court proving that phone searching is illegal and disproportionate, the Swiss Federal Council opened the consultation for the implementation of this measure a few days ago. The consultation period which started on 10th March, will run until 19th June and will define which personal data the SEM can analyze, designating the competent departments and regulating the procedure, especially on the temporary storage of personal data.
According to the SEM, they will inform the applicants precisely about the analysis to ensure that the person is “made aware, from the start of the asylum procedure, of the fact that their electronic data carriers may be subject to analysis” and, “about the consequences of refusing to allow their data carriers”.
However, in front of this pressure from the immigration authorities, the asylum seeker will not be in the position to freely and voluntarily refuse to be subjected to this intrusive operation and to protect his/her own digital data and private life.
If through their smartphones the asylum seekers provided or collected advice on how to avoid border police or had contact with people smugglers to organize their departure, that nature of authentic information can be used against the phone owners and their asylum applications, despite their genuine need for international protection.
Moreover, in case their data privacy is directly connected to life-threatening consequences back home, for them or their families, or if they fear being arrested and deported, asylum seekers could decide to stop using their smartphones, giving up a device that plays an important and intimate role in their lives and mental health.
It is clear that the reason behind this decision lies more in the state’s desire to turn down asylum claims, which increased in 2022, than in its honest interest in learning more information about the person’s comprehensive situation to ensure the safety of both Swiss citizens and asylum seekers.
Switzerland is said to have received about 24,511 asylum applications in 2022, not including refugees from Ukraine, that are currently around 69,000 but are granted “S status” protection within a few days and do not seem to raise similar doubts about the sincerity of their claims.
While Ukrainians can enter Switzerland without a biometric passport or visa, valid travel documents are still requested from victims of the devastating earthquake that happened in Turkey and Syria. Despite the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives writing last month to migration officials asking for all bureaucratic barriers to be dismantled, Swiss authorities insisted that all refugees seeking to enter Switzerland, as a result of the disaster, must hold identification documents.
“Mandatory phone data evaluations are a concrete violation of asylum seekers’ privacy rights, as mobile phones carry intimate, in-depth and delicate information that a person may not want to share with state authorities, and should not be forced to” said Michela Pugliese, a legal researcher at Euro-Med Monitor, “The assumption that data extraction from personal devices leads to more reliable evidence than people’s own claims about their life and fears is profoundly problematic, especially when such an invasive and biased operation is not asked to all asylum seekers in the same way”.
Euro-Med Monitor calls on Switzerland not to implement the mandatory screening of asylum seekers’ mobile phones and personal devices, and fully abide by national and international law concerning the right to privacy, informational self-determination, confidentiality, and information integrity; to ensure that any processing of asylum seekers’ personal data fully respects their human dignity, integrity, and fundamental rights, particularly the right to respect for one's private life (Art. 7 of the Charter) and the right to the protection of personal data (Art. 8 of the Charter).