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Tech by VICE

An App to Catch Neo-Nazis by the Music They Listen To

German authorities are deciding whether to arm police with the "Nazi Shazam."

by Victoria Turk
Dec 3 2013, 7:00pm
Image via Flickr/Jonanamary

German police are considering using a Shazam-like app to detect far-right songs being played at rallies or in clubs. It's part of an effort to clamp down on neo-Nazis trying to lure in young followers through music.

German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the country’s interior ministers will meet this week to discuss use of the app, which was developed by local police in Saxony and has attracted the unofficial name of "Nazi Shazam." Just like Shazam works out what song you're hearing from just a few bars, the system picks up audio fingerprints of neo-Nazi rock so police can intervene when it’s being played.

The whole situation sounds pretty insane to an outsider, but apparently far-right music is a big problem in Germany, where it’s considered a “gateway drug” into the neo-Nazi scene. The Guardian reported that in 2004, far-right groups even tried to recruit young members by handing out CD compilations in schools.

That sort of action is illegal in Germany, where neo-Nazi groups are outlawed and the Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors is tasked with examining and indexing media—including films, games, music, and websites—that may be harmful to young people. They explain on their site:

Media content is considered harmful to minors if it tends to endanger their process of developing a socially responsible and self-reliant personality. This applies to, for example, media that contain indecent, extremely violent, crime-inducing, anti-Semitic or racist material, also to media content that glorifies National Socialism, drugs, alcohol abuse, self-inflicted injury or suicide, to media content propagating vigilante justice and to media content that discriminates against specific groups of people.

Just last year, the board indexed 79 songs for being too racist or neo-Nazi-ish, which means that under-18s can’t buy them. It’s also illegal to make those songs accessible to under-18s, hence the need to track music being played where young people might be present. With the app, a police officer’s smartphone microphone could detect the illegal track and help launch a quick investigation.

It’s a neat use of technology to fight a good cause, but it’s not without its problems. According to the Spiegel report, lawyers will have to decide whether automatically identifying music counts as audio surveillance. It seems kind of laughable that fears of surveillance should represent a barrier amidst the revelations of mass surveillance across Europe and the US, which Germany has also been implicated in, but, you know, they wouldn’t want people to think that they take spying on citizens lightly or anything. 

It’s an interesting one for freedom of expression junkies (and remember that Europe doesn’t have the First Amendment as in the US). In general, listening in on people’s music habits sounds more than a little creepy. But if anything’s worth bending a few ideals for, stopping Nazis is probably it.

On a more practical level, however, it’s unclear how effective this app could be in any case. After all, it only picks up songs on the Federal Review Board’s list, so those inclined to the far right could escape detection by simply choosing songs that haven’t been added yet, or appropriating other legal songs for their cause.