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In election year, Germany to tap asylum-seekers' phones for ID checks

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government has drafted a law to allow authorities to tap into the phone and computer data of asylum-seekers if there are doubts about their nationalities - an unusual move in a country where data protection is sacred.

According to a draft of the bill obtained by Reuters, officials at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) will receive legal clearance to scan the cellphones, tablets and laptops of applicants for asylum.

BAMF officials have said many present false documents in the hope of being granted asylum. Some have no documents.

The Interior Ministry, which hammered out the draft with the Justice Ministry, estimated that more than 50 percent of the 280,000 asylum applications in 2016 should have undergone closer scrutiny, such as an examination of phone data.

They were not, because officials did not have the legal authority to do it. Officials have instead resorted to language experts to try to determine the true origins of applicants.

“We need to establish the identities of the applicants,” said Volker Bouffier, state premier in Hesse and a conservative ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. “To eliminate any doubts of a person’s origin, we need to use all information available.”

The measure is one of several steps Merkel’s government has taken to demonstrate its determination to crack down on abuse of the country’s liberal asylum rules.

More than a million migrants have flooded into Germany in the last 18 months. Public support for refugees remains high but reports of abuse have alarmed voters and political leaders.

Germany goes to great lengths to protect data privacy following the abuses of the Gestapo in the Third Reich and the Stasi security police in Communist East Germany.

Merkel, fighting a tight battle to win re-election for a fourth term on Sept. 24, is under pressure from her party’s right wing to win back conservative voters by cracking down on abuse.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, Johannes Dimroth, said Merkel’s cabinet was likely to endorse the measure within weeks.

There are currently 213,000 asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected and are awaiting deportation but who have been allowed to stay temporarily for a variety of reasons.

On Sunday, a Merkel ally said Germany deported a record 80,000 migrants denied asylum last year and that figure would rise in 2017. Nearly half of 700,000 asylum requests made in 2016 were rejected, according to chief of staff Peter Altmaier.

Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin; editing by Andrew Roche