SMS-enabled citizens hunt crooks in Germany

They're not guns, but German cops are calling them the next best weapon to hunt down crooks -- mobile phones.

More than 75 percent of Germany's 85 million-plus inhabitants own one. 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. 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 (BKA) and become a volunteer mobile phone cop.

The service is based on registered volunteers receiving a brief SMS (Short Message Service) message on their mobile phones from the police and calling back if they spot someone. A typical message could read like this: "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 over a year with police departments in 10 cities. The results were overwhelmingly positive, according to Interior Minister Otto Schily, who last month approved a nationwide roll-out of the service.

In a country battling rising crime, Schily said 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 Web page (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 simple and quick.

There is, however, a hitch for those worried about governments electronically compiling and storing information about them; the registration process requires everyone to provide a certain amount of personal data, including occupation and passport, which the police reserve the right to check for security reasons. This means, of course, that such data ends up in yet another IT system held by the Powers That Be.

Perhaps more disturbing, especially for civil libertarians in Germany, the new SMS search service comes to a country which 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 (SPD) fear the new mobile phone snoop service could encourage citizens to spy on their neighbors.

Defending his decision at a media conference last month, Schily said the "speedy and direct involvement of citizens enables new forms of cooperation between police and the population." Because German law, he added, allows for public searches only in case of "heavy criminal offenses," the police will only send out SMS searches in specific cases.

Should the snooping service establish itself as a regular feature in police work throughout the country -- as Schily hopes it will -- a next step could be the use of camera phones to receive mug shots. After all, as the saying goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words" (and words, agreeably, are a precious commodity in a SMS message with a typical limitation of 160 characters).

That possibility, though, could rattle civil libertarians even more. Their concern: If mobile phone snoopers with camera phones can receive pictures, they can also take them. The potential for unsuspecting people to be photographed in private and, in some cases, even in humiliating situations -- with their images transmitted to authorities and others and later stored -- is especially unsettling, privacy advocates warn.

You just wonder what George Orwell would have to say about this.

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John Blau

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