UK police scrap searches of rape victims' private data after outcry

by Amber Milne | @hiyaimamber | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 July 2020 15:27 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A woman uses her mobile phone as she walks under a railway bridge in London, Britain March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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Police policy of searching rape victims private data has been dropped after pressure from women's rights and privacy groups

By Amber Milne

LONDON, July 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British police said on Thursday they are scrapping forms that allowed prosecutors to search rape complainants' private data, after sustained pressure to end the "intrusive" practice.

The move comes after a year-long legal campaign by Britain's Centre for Women's Justice (CWJ), on behalf of two women identified only as Olivia and Courtney who raised concerns about submitting private data when they reported rape.

"We are relieved that these forms have finally been withdrawn from use, but they should never have been used in the first place," Harriet Wistrich, director of CWJ said in a statement.

"Their effect has been to delay rape cases and deter many victims from coming forward or continuing with their cases."

Olivia - not her real name - described her experience with police and government prosecutors as "degrading and unlawful".

"I was raped by a stranger and the police demanded seven years of irrelevant data from me that predated the rape," she said in a statement.

Digital data extraction consent forms were introduced last year and allow police to search complainants' text messages, images and calls as part of their investigations.

That prompted an outcry from women's rights groups and data privacy campaigners, many of whom argued that the practice would slow down investigation times and could discourage women from pursuing allegations.

"These forms entrenched an intrusive and unlawful policy of digital interrogations that obstructed justice for thousands of people," said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a privacy group.

The National Police Chiefs Council said searches of digital devices should be requested only in cases where it helped police follow reasonable lines of enquiry, and the forms had been found to be "not sufficient for their intended purpose".

A new system will be put in place after consultations, and guidance provided to police on how to conduct mobile phone investigation, it said.

report published last year by Big Brother Watch found every victim who refused to sign the form allowing access to their personal data had their case dropped.

One phone can contain over 30,000 pages of data which can be held by authorities for 100 years according to Big Brother Watch, and can delay investigations for three years.

Courtney - also not her real name - said she hoped the move would stop rape victims having to choose between "privacy and justice".

"For the first time I feel like there is hope that victims of sexual violence will no longer have to make the choice between privacy or justice as I did," she said.

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(Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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