ACM CSCW hat unseren Blog Beitrag zu unserem Paper „Digital Privacy Perceptions of Asylum Seekers in Germany: An Empirical Study about Smartphone Usage during the Flight” veröffentlicht. Anbei der Blog-Beitrag von Enno Steinbrink, Lilian Reichert, Michelle Mende und Christian Reuter im Wortlaut.

This blog post summarizes our research paper titled “Digital Privacy Perceptions of Asylum Seekers in Germany” by Enno Steinbrink, Lilian Reichert, Michelle Mende, and Christian Reuter. We investigate how asylum seekers on the flight use mobile information technologies, while especially taking privacy into account, and outline implications for design and information strategies. The paper will be presented at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing 2021 (CSCW).

Since 2015, an increased number of asylum seekers has come to Europe. Today’s migration movements no longer depend solely on physical infrastructures (e.g., transportation) but increasingly on digital ones (e.g., social media, Wi-Fi hotspots). Asylum seekers often use smartphones for information and communication purposes. However, while past CSCW and HCI research frequently focused on the use of smartphones and information and communication technologies (ICT) of migrants and refugees at their target destination or on the use of these technologies in the Global South in general, the digital usage of asylum seekers during the flight is an increasingly relevant research area of CSCW. However, a comprehensive understanding of the asylum seekers’ perception of digital privacy is missing in the research process and thus, there is a need to identify the reasons behind the user behavior of people on the run. Following this research gap, we investigate (1) how relevant digital privacy is for asylum seekers and how privacy related knowledge is acquired during the flight as well as (2) how it impacts their phone usage behavior during their journey and what strategies emerge to protect their digital privacy. By conducting a qualitative interview study with 14 asylum seekers who applied for asylum in Germany, our study examines the smartphone-related privacy challenges, perceptions and risks of asylum seekers during their flight.

Generally, the majority of the questioned asylum seekers possessed a smartphone either temporarily or throughout their flight and none of the respondents escaped without the access to a cell phone. We found that smartphones were often used collectively within spontaneously formed groups during the flight, posing further privacy challenges. Above that, certain smartphone apps such as on/-offline maps, the ability to make calls and to access apps with chat-feature as well as SMS poses to be most relevant for the asylum seekers. Our results further show that asylum seekers are often aware of the various risks deriving from the use of smartphones and ICT. In course of our study, we identified five categories of threats leading asylum seekers to protect their own digital privacy:

  • Governmental persecution in the country of origin
  • Governmental persecution — extended to family members
  • Persecution by non-state actors (e.g., IS or Taliban)
  • Privacy related cooperation with people smugglers
  • Negative consequences for the residence status in the country of destination or on re-entry the country of origin/a transit country

Regarding certain preconceptions of the asylum seekers about digital privacy we outline indications that digital privacy practices also depend on origin and reason for fleeing: especially asylum seekers confronted with negative consequences of state surveillance and persecution in their countries of origin developed a comprehensive understanding of the meaning of “digital privacy”.

Furthermore, the interviewed asylum seekers used different strategies to protect their personal privacy during the flight (Table 1). This applies especially to people who have already been exposed to pressure from state or non-state persecution in their countries of origin. The strategies seemed to serve different purposes, such as preventing a personal identification and localization or protecting personal information from access by government agencies, police, soldiers or non-state actors. The superior objective was always to ensure their own safety as well as the safety of their family members.

Implications for Design and Information Strategies

Since asylum seekers on the flight are not everyday consumers but rather a vulnerable population with specific characteristics and needs that require to be addressed when developing and designing applications, our findings have several general implications for the design of online platforms and digital tools for asylum seekers:

  • Online platforms, accessible within a browser from changing devices, could lead to more acceptance compared to assistance or information apps
  • Any effective assistance or information tool needs to allow a certain level of anonymity and hence allow for pseudonyms and not be linked to phone numbers
  • Future efforts for digitalization within the context of humanitarian aid should consider the need for digital privacy to support acceptance
  • Any log-in based app or platform needs to make it easy to log-out
  • Since participants reported of forced access to the devices, there should be an effort to facilitate information hiding on demand and plausible deniability
  • Technologies that provide hidden storage volumes for smartphones or an app-based lockdown mode hiding critical information should be improved and made accessible

Our exploratory results give essential impulses for further research on privacy perceptions of asylum seekers during the flight. Because privacy concerns can be a hindrance for technology adoption and can lead to renouncement or self-restriction, the findings provide useful insights that could benefit the development of privacy enhancing technologies for asylum seekers or assistance and collaboration platforms in the context of CSCW.

Paper citation: Enno Steinbrink, Lilian Reichert, Michelle Mende, and Christian Reuter. 2021. Digital Privacy Perceptions of Asylum Seekers in Germany: An Empirical Study about Smartphone Usage during the Flight. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 5, CSCW2, Article 382 (October 2021), 24 pages.


ACM CSCW Blog Beitrag: „Digital Privacy Perceptions of Asylum Seekers in Germany: An Empirical Study about Smartphone Usage during the Flight“