EU agencies advise increased confiscation and extraction of asylum seekers’ mobile phones and now provide a manual on how to do so. Apps to encrypt or disguise locations are disliked in the report as “countermeasures” to surveillance.
Often the mobile phones they carry are the only connection between refugees and their relatives and friends in their country of origin or elsewhere. They contain contacts, personal communication as well as photos and videos as a memory of the home countries. Only within the European Union is it possible to apply for asylum in its member states. Therefore, the phones are also an indispensable aid for navigating to receiving countries and finding out about conditions and support there.
Asylum seekers’ mobile phones are also of increasing interest to authorities. As punishment for irregular entry, border guards in Greece and Croatia, and most recently at the EU’s external border with Belarus, destroy them before abandoning their owners at sea or forcibly push them back. Police forces, on the other hand, confiscate the phones in order to gain information about routes used and people helping to flee.
Phones used to “lock, conceal and disguise”
Frontex is actually responsible for preventing irregular migration. “migrant smuggling” is considered cross-border, organised crime, so its prosecution also falls under Europol’s jurisdiction. Five years ago, Europol opened an Anti-Migrant Smuggling Centre (EMSC) in The Hague. Europol has also set up two analysis projects, “Phoenix” and “Migrant Smuggling”, where all interested and involved member states can store and access information.
Both agencies monitor the internet and social media, looking for any indications of “migrant smuggling” there. Intelligence also comes from a “Joint Operational Office” in Vienna, in which Europol and the German Federal Police are also involved. An “Internet Referral Unit” (EU IRU) at Europol reports online presence of unwanted support for the transportation of refugees to the Internet service providers for removal.
Frontex and Europol have now published a report on the “Digitalisation of people smuggling”. However, it is less about the tools of “smugglers” and more about the phones of refugees. In the guide, the two EU agencies give handouts on the most commonly used messengers and how the authorities can access the content stored there.
No apps for “smuggling of migrants” discovered
Over several pages, the report presents various apps and services, including Facebook, Instagram, Signal, Skvpe, Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp. Also included are popular VPN services or apps for encryption. They are described as “countermeasures” to police surveillance. Frontex and Europol also list tools that can be used to disguise GPS positions or phone numbers, calling them apps to “lock, conceal and disguise”.
Also listed are various mapping applications and open geographic data sources, including Maps.me and Google Maps, which can be used to share coordinates, routes and other information. This concerns, for example, immigration possibilities via the Eastern Mediterranean and the so-called Balkan routes. According to the report, these applications are used to a much lesser extent for routes from Russia and Ukraine or via Poland. Its contents were primarily aimed at asylum seekers from the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asian countries.
Frontex repeatedly claimed in recent years that there were apps specifically developed for “migrant smuggling”. The German government also claims to have heard “that so-called apps by smugglers exist, with which offers of boats and information about conditions in various destination countries can be retrieved”. According now to Frontex and Europol, however, such digital tools have not been discovered so far.
“Special tactics” to obtain password or pin code
At the end of the report, the agencies give tips on how to seize and read mobile communication devices. According to the report, they come from “specialists” and “experts” from the Centre for Cybercrime and the Centre for Combating Migrant Smuggling at Europol. Recommendations from “other sources” were also taken into account.
According to the “checklist for facilitating forensic extraction”, the devices should be connected to a power bank and kept in a Faraday bag so that they do not connect to the internet. In this way, the authorities want to avoid their owners deleting content remotely. If the police have the PIN, the phone should be put into flight mode.
The authorities should “ideally” also confiscate charging cables, memory cards and other SIM cards in the possession of the refugees. All items should be sealed and marked with the personal data of their owners. To facilitate their analysis, a device password or PIN code for forensic analysis should be provided “whenever possible”. According to the agencies, this can be done either by “addressing this matter to the user” or by using “special tactics”.
The report leaves open whether this also includes exerting pressure or coercion on the asylum seekers or rather technical measures.
Image: Border guards in Croatia “punish” refugees by destroying their mobile phones. Europol and Frontex, on the other hand, want their forensic evaluation (Jack Sapoch).