RAPE CASES DROPPED OVER DIGITAL STRIP SEARCH REFUSALS

Big Brother Watch Team / June 18, 2020

A Big Brother Watch FOI investigation examining a sample of 390 rape cases found:

  • 100% of cases where victims refused to hand in phones were dropped
  • At least 1 in 5 victims refused digital strip searches
  • 19% of victims asked for digital search are children

A Freedom of Information investigation by Big Brother Watch has found that rape investigations have been ‘systematically’ dropped after complainants refused to give police the contents of their phones.

The privacy campaign group obtained data relating to samples of 390 rape cases from 22 police forces across England and Wales. The FOI investigation, which is the first to reveal the impact of police requests for victims’ phones, found that at least 1 in 5 complainants did not consent to giving police their devices. In the sample, 100% of cases where complainants refused a ‘digital strip search’ were subsequently dropped.

Big Brother Watch has previously warned that the digital searches are “highly likely to infringe victims’ data protection and privacy rights” and are “causing major delays to investigations”.

‘Digital Processing Notices’ were rolled out across police forces in England and Wales in April 2019. The forms are used to notify victims of crime, most commonly victims of sexual offences, that police will download large amounts of data from their phones.

Although police may seek specific evidence the forms tell victims that, as a minimum, they must download “almost all of the data you could see if you were to turn on the device and browse through it”. The data extracted includes all of the complainants’ texts, messaging apps, emails, call records, photos, videos, social media messages, to even deleted data and can be kept by police for up to 100 years.

Two rape survivors, represented by the Centre for Women’s Justice, launched a judicial review of the policy last year. The case has been paused pending an investigation into police digital extractions by the Information Commissioner.

Campaigners estimate that the data routinely sought from a victim in rape investigations amounts to at least 30,000 pages.

The police form states that the allegations may not be investigated or prosecuted if the victim refuses, but that if the case does continue, “defence representatives will be told of your refusal”. However, in Big Brother Watch’s investigation, 100% of the cases where a complainant did not give consent to a digital search were dropped.

Big Brother Watch’s investigation also reveals that women are disproportionately asked to hand in their phones, with 95% of the police’s requests being made to women, who make up approximately 88% of rape complainants.1 The investigation also found that 19% of rape complainants who were asked to hand over bulk data were children. Big Brother Watch described the findings as “alarming”.

Victims’ groups have warned that police demands for bulk data are deterring rape victims from going forward to police, leading to cases being dropped and contributing to the “effective decriminalisation” of rape.2

Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales and ten human rights organisations including Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, the Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women and JUSTICE, urged police to revise the approach to digital evidence policy last year. The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners also made the unusual step of calling for the policy to be scrapped.3

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched a high-priority investigation into mobile phone extractions and is expected to report this week.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

“Our investigation shows that rape victims are being systematically denied justice if they defend their data rights. Victims of no other crime are expected to surrender their digital lives to such speculation and scrutiny. Even suspects are spared such extreme intrusion. The volume of personal data police demand from victims often exceeds the information seized in a property raid.

“Victims reporting rape to the police want nothing more than to advance investigations and to consent to lawful and proportionate evidence collection. But the police insist on an all or nothing approach in which they have to either put their private lives on trial or see rapists walk free.

“The system needs urgent reform to end these cruel digital strip searches and afford victims consent and dignity.”

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice said:

“The legal action CWJ launched last year challenged the approach taken by CPS and police as unlawful for a variety or reasons, including that it discriminated on the grounds of sex. The outcome of the FOI research undertaken by BBW is powerful evidence to support our claim. The evidence also confirms our own evidence from rape survivors that, contrary to a statement put out by the CPS last year, that a refusal to hand over a digital device, invariably leads to the case being dropped.

“The legal action has been put on hold for a year awaiting publication of the Information Commissioner’s report. That means over the last year the police have been using a process that we argue is unlawful and discriminatory.”

Notes

  • Spokespeople are available for interview. Please contact us to enquire on 07730 439257.
  • Copies of FOIs are available on request. Please contact info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk to enquire.
  • In July 2019, Big Brother Watch released a report combining victims’ testimonies with legal and policy analysis, titled Digital Strip Searches. The press release is available here and report is available here.
  • Big Brother Watch’s petition to end digital strip searches gained over 37,000 signatures.

Notes on data

Sample size:

22 police forces, reviewing 390 cases

Proportion of cases where digital requests recorded to have been made:

22% of cases (or 84 individuals)

Demographic break down of digital requests:

(16 forces answered, corresponding to 77 cases/individuals in which request/s were made.)

77% women, 4% men, 19% children (59, 3, 15 respectively).

Counting only adults (62 cases), its 95% women, 5% men.

Proportion of cases where digital requests recorded as refused:

(20 forces answered, corresponding to 74 cases/individuals in which request/s were made.)

22% refused (16 individuals, across 9 forces).

Proportion of those who refused whose cases were closed:

(8 forces answered, corresponding to 14 cases.)

100% were closed (14 cases).

DPIAs / EIAs?

None.

Limitations:

Police recording is poor – review requires reading each case report. There are likely to be many more digital requests and refusals. Patterns in some of the responses suggest that digital requests are only recorded where they are agreed to; those that are refused may be closed without the request/refusal being noted.

Footnotes

1. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/sexualoffencesinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017/

2. https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/rape-effectively-decriminalised-womens-coalition-demand-action-from-prime-minister/

3. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/04/police-commissioners-criticise-rape-victim-data-request-form/