Police in the German state of Lower-Saxony will soon use their networks of Facebook “friends” to find missing persons and hunt out suspected criminals, according to the state’s interior minister.

The decision to use social media in manhunts follows the completion of a pilot scheme in the northern city of Hanover last year which drew sharp criticism from data protection groups.

The scheme helped police clear up six criminal investigations and two missing persons cases after identikits of suspects and stills from Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) footage were circulated on the social networking site Facebook.

Two cases were resolved just hours after the information was uploaded to the site.

“Our successes so far clearly show that the police must not shut themselves off from this medium,” state interior minister of Lower-Saxony, Uwe Schuenemann, said in a statement.

“The police department in Lower-Saxony can adapt to new trends,” he said. “With a fan page the police is showing itself to be modern and approachable.”

Data protection groups heavily criticized the publication of suspects’ pictures on Facebook during the pilot last year, arguing that personal data directed through Facebook could end up on an American internet server, outside the influence of EU data protection laws.

The new system, which will be introduced in the near future, will direct Facebook users to a police server via an Internet link, said Schuenemann.

But the state commissioner for data protection, Joachim Wahlbrink, said this was not enough and the decision would lead to the circulation of the personal information on the Internet which can never be completely deleted.

“Once this data has been saved, those involved will always be pilloried,” his spokesman, Michael Knaps, said.