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, DŸsseldorf 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 catching crooks.
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 neighbors.
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.
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?