German police enlist mobile phone users to transmit tips
By John Blau, CIO Magazine
German Cops are calling them the best new weapon
to hunt down crooks: mobile phones.
More than 75 percent of Germany's 85 million-plus
inhabitants own a mobile phone. Many of them are
taxi and bus drivers, delivery people and others
who professionally spend a lot of time on the
ground. More so, in fact, than the country's
police force. That's why Germany's cash-strapped
government has turned to its mobilized citizens
for help in tracking down suspected criminals,
fugitives and even missing persons.
In what is believed to be the first service of
its kind in the world, citizens over 16 years old
can now register with the Federal Office of
Criminal Investigation (known as BKA) to become a
volunteer mobile-phone cop.
The service is based on registered volunteers
receiving a brief SMS (or short message service)
message on their mobile phones from the police
and calling back if they spot someone. A typical
message could read: "Police searching for bank
robber, male, approx. 30 years old, wearing
jeans, black leather jacket, driving black BMW
sedan, Dusseldorf license number D-JJK-5511. Dial
110 with information."
Before launching the SMS search service, the
German Interior Ministry authorized pilot tests
for more than a year with police departments in
10 cities. The results were overwhelmingly
positive, according to Interior Minister Otto
Schily, who in February approved a nationwide
rollout of the service.
In a country battling rising crime-up 2.3 percent
in 2002 over 2001-Schily says the new method
could significantly improve crime-fighting by
enabling public-minded citizens to search for
criminals or missing people. His logic: the more
eyeballs snooping, the better the chances of
Interested citizens can register to become
SMS-enabled spotters on the Internet by going
either to the BKA webpage (www.bka.de) or
directly to the special police SMS search portal
(www.sms-fahndung.de). Here they find general
information about the service and their role in
the process, in addition to the registration
procedure, which is purportedly simple and quick.
But for civil libertarians, it's not so simple.
The registration process requires everyone to
provide personal data, including occupation and
passport number, which the police reserve the
right to check for security reasons. The new
police-sponsored SMS search service comes to a
country that has a sad history of notorious
snoopers-Hitler's gestapo and the former East
German stasi. Even some members of Schily's own
Social Democratic Party told the German
international broadcasting service Deutsche Welle
that they fear the new mobile-phone snoop service
could encourage citizens to spy on their
Defending his decision, Schily says the "speedy
and direct involvement of citizens enables new
forms of cooperation between police and the
population." He says that because German law
allows for public searches only in cases of
"heavy criminal offenses," the police will send
out SMS searches only in such cases.
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Should the snooping service establish itself as a
regular feature in police work throughout the
country, a next step could be the use of camera
phones so citizen volunteers can receive mug
shots. Photos carry more data than SMS messages,
which typically are limited to 160 characters. Is
it too Orwellian to imagine a volunteer receiving
a mug shot of himself?