The Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany stores millions of facial images and fingerprints, as well as tens of thousands of people with stigmatising categories.
The police forces in all 16 German states maintain their own databases, including for incident management, for storing criminal offences or for warning against people they consider to be dangerous. In addition, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in Wiesbaden also maintains so-called administrative, centralised or joint files, which are filled by the federal states or the federal police forces. This is regulated in the Federal Criminal Police Office Act, which is now being scrutinised by the Constitutional Court due to the data collection mania of the supreme criminal authority.
Some of these databases contain highly personal and sensitive information on many millions of people. The largest is the INPOL system, which in turn consists of dozens of individual files. One of these is the photograph file, in which the police collect images from identification procedures and asylum seekers. Last year, around 4.6 million people with 6.7 million images were stored in this file. Since 2008, this data can also be searched using facial recognition. When it comes to fingerprints, the police authorities are even more prolific: a corresponding file on “asylum seekers and other foreigners”, for example, contains 5.6 million personal data records. This figure comes from the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s answers to a question from the Left Party parliamentary group in April this year.
The BKA also stores ” person-related hints” (PHW) in INPOL. Collections of this kind are kept in each federal state, but many of the entries there are also transferred to the nationwide database in Wiesbaden. Officially, the PHW are used to protect police officers in their day-to-day work: for every personal INPOL query – i.e. during a traffic stop, before a search or when applying for ID documents – a “warning” appears if the person concerned is stored in the database with a PHW. Possible categories include “escapee”, “armed”, “narcotics user”, “suicide risk” or “violent”. Several PHWs can be assigned to one person.
As early as the mid-1980s, the federal and state data protection commissioners publicly criticised the stigmatising effect of these internal police characteristics: It was often not possible to prove on the basis of which facts a certain characteristic was attributed to the persons concerned. This was particularly true of the existing PHW “mentally ill” or “risk of infection”, for which information is also provided by health authorities or detention centres.
Under pressure from the opposition and groups such as Aids-Hilfe, Berlin’s then Christian Democratic Senator Frank Henkel tabled a motion at the 2015 Conference of Interior Ministers to revise the two PHWs, but it was only a cosmetic change: the category “mentally ill” is now “mental and behavioural disorders”, and almost 16,000 people across Germany are listed under this category. The BKA still has over 22,000 people labelled as “at risk of infection”.
In many cases, the police searched the PHWs for purposes other than criminal prosecution. In order to legalise this breach of the law, the interior ministers have transferred some of the PHW categories to so-called “investigation-supporting hints” (EHW). There are currently more than one million such EHWs (including multiple entries by individuals), among them in the categories “rockers” (around 3,500), “sex offenders” (around 89,000), “stalkers” (around 13,500) or “politically motivated offenders” with various “characteristics” (around 41,000 in total). The EHW category “travelling offender”, in which many Sintizze and Romnja are also stored, is always controversial.
According to the Federal Data Protection Act, anyone in Germany can ask the police what data they have about them. This right to information is being exercised more and more frequently vis-à-vis the BKA; last year, 4,575 people enquired about the storage of their data or requested its deletion. The number of refusals to provide information has also risen in recent years, but remains low overall. In 2022, the BKA issued 119 “partial refusals” and 21 “full refusals”.
Published in German in „nd“.