German police use drone to combat social benefit fraud

Along with Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia is one of the pioneers in the use of police drones. Now an unmanned aircraft is being used to track organised fraudulent benefits to the disfavor of the job centre

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has procured a drone in order to convict „groups of offenders with a gang structure“ in the case of fraudulent social benefits. This was announced by the Federal Ministry of the Interior in its answer to a parlamentarian question. The device, which was financed by the EU Internal Security Fund, is intended for the prosecution of „social benefit fraud by EU citizens“ in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The Federal Ministry does not want to disclose which device it is and which company received the order for reasons of „public weal“. Otherwise, the addressees of the measure could protect themselves against it, writes Hans-Georg Engelke, the state secretary in charge.

Federal and state governments allegedly not informed

The secrecy is surprising because North Rhine-Westphalia, along with Bavaria, is one of the federal states that procures drones on a large scale. Starting this year, the police there will receive 106 quadrocopters of different size, which will mainly be used to gather evidence after serious crimes or traffic accidents. They will also be deployed for traffic monitoring and water police. 276 police officers are trained as „remote pilots“ to control the aircraft.

The drone, which is financed by the EU, is used in the newly founded „Commission on Organised Crime“ (KOK), which, in addition to the BKA, includes the Federal Police, Customs and various state criminal investigation offices. In order to prosecute transnational organised crime, the participants have started a „KOK Process 2.0“, which consists of a total of five sub-projects. The BKA applied to the EU Commission for a total of half a million euros. The drone project is entitled „UNION“ and is led by the North Rhine-Westphalia State Criminal Police Office (LKA).

It is questionable how the North Rhine-Westphalia state government is involved in the overall project. As late as March, the Düsseldorf Ministry of the Interior had answered a freedom of information request with complete ignorance and recommended that an enquiry be made to the federal government.

In response to parliamentary questions from members of the Bundestag, the Federal Ministry of the Interior also replied that it had „no further“ or „no further current“ information on the use of the drone apart from the BKA application.

Does the drone spy on workplaces?

In the project description submitted by the BKA for the „KOK Process 2.0“, the applicants referred to the fact that individual job centres had already reported suspicious cases of „organised benefit fraud by EU citizens“ in 2015. In these cases, „own compatriots from south-eastern European EU states“ were brought to Germany in a targeted manner.

However, it is still unclear in which scenarios the drone is supposed to provide information in this regard. It is conceivable that the police will spy on workplaces where people are employed without paying social security contributions.

It is also possible that the drone will be used to observe from the air whether recipients of benefits reported by the job centre are actually engaged in an activity. According to the BKA, the people who are allegedly brought to Germany in an organised manner to work illegally also have social benefits paid out to them, and these funds are then „retained by the people behind them“. The „UNION“ drone project is therefore intended to provide an insight into „personal connections and criminal structures“, whereupon the competent authorities can initiate investigative proceedings.

Investigators of the North Rhine-Westphalian LKA had carried out such a measure a month ago together with customs and the tax investigation office against a „group of offenders from Düren“.

Thirty-two persons had previously been investigated for „tax evasion, social benefit fraud, withholding and embezzlement of wages as well as human trafficking and forced labour“. The police press release does not say whether the related raids on more than 48 properties are connected to the KOK project. The offences were said to have taken place at construction sites of demolition companies, among others.

Police drones also to observe political assemblies

The drone-based EU project began on 1 December 2019, with a scheduled end date of 31 October this year. After that, the participants prepare a non-public report, which also has to be sent to the EU Commission as sponsor. The unmanned aerial vehicle will then remain in the LKA’s inventory, where it can be used for law enforcement in other areas.

The EU-funded drone complements the new unmanned equipment by the state government. The riot police in North Rhine-Westphalia are also to receive 76 quadrocopters of various sizes in this context. According to Interior Minister Herbert Reul (CDU), these could take to the air to „pursue offenders“. According to the planned new Assembly Act, their use would also be permitted in the context of demonstrations and rallies.

Image: A drone in use by the police in North Rhine-Westphalia (Ministry of the Interior NRW).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.