How Germany could label you a criminal via Facebook

A German state is using photofits on Facebook to identify criminals. The program, which has already led to eight arrests, is being considered for a country-wide rollout. What if a photofit looks like you?

In Hannover, Germany, local police have implemented a pilot scheme called "Fahndung via Facebook." It roughly translates to "manhunt via Facebook," the goal of which is to find criminals by posting photofits on the social network.

Using details from witnesses, drawings of suspects are created and then posted on Facebook, where users are encouraged to identify them. Since its introduction in March 2011, the scheme has led to eight arrested individuals, some involved in cases like sexual assault and child abduction. The program is popular enough to justify plans to roll it out in all of Germany, according to TNW.

Photofits aren't exactly the most reliable source of reference and when they're released on Facebook, instead of being treated confidentially, they can do a lot more damage to the wrongly accused. The drawings can be inaccurate and are susceptible to human error: what if the picture looks less like the murderer and more like you?

Critics aware of the error-prone world of photofit speculation include Hannover's ministry of justice and Lower Saxony's data protection commissioner. Germany's data protection commissioner raised concerns and interrupted Fahndung via Facebook for two weeks in January, arguing that an official manhunt may never be stored on a server located outside of the state it was issued in. Lower Saxony's Secretary of the Interior countered by announcing the ministry wouldn't publish any official information on Facebook's US servers anymore. Instead, the police will only link to the cases on Facebook and lead users to their own server.

The German federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg are already looking into how they could implement Fahndung via Facebook locally. The German ministry of the interior has mentioned plans for a country-wide enforcement, teaming up with all 50 of Germany's police authorities. After Facebook, they're considering to use Twitter too.

If the program proves to be effective, Germany won't be the only country with such a system in place. Privacy advocates will have difficulty arguing against suggestions that the arrests, such as the eight mentioned above, would not have happened without Facebook.

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