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 ( or directly to the special police SMS search portal ( 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.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

John Blau

IDG News Service
Show Comments


Cygnett 2500 ChargeUp Pocket Lightning Portable Power Bank

Learn more >




Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?