Protecting victims of sexual violence from intrusive data gathering
When victims of sexual violence report a crime, the police often take their mobile phone and extract all of the data it contains – averaging 30,000 pages of information – and can store it for up to 100 years.
Police also routinely request personal records about victims, including medical records and school records. This personal information can even be disclosed to the alleged offender for use against a victim in court.
These practices have arisen from the police’s outdated digital evidence technologies, outdated laws and pressure from the Crown Prosecution Service.
Police are worried that this treatment of victims will deter people from coming forward – and so are we.
Victims of sexual violence are being investigated, with their private lives put on trial. This is not only re-traumatising, but is obstructing justice in the UK.
We’re calling for urgent reform to demands for rape victims’ mobile phones and personal records. Other victims of crime are not treated this way. People who have suffered sexual violence are victims – not suspects.
The issue: Victims under investigation
The information available on people’s smart phones is often deeply personal and sensitive – containing messages, emails, photos, videos, location data, contacts, documents, apps, web browsing data and more. When police take a victim’s phone, they often take a copy of all of this personal information. The phone will not be returned until after the case is closed – months or even years later.
Police frequently also request logins and passwords to victims’ social media accounts and personal ‘cloud’ storage services.
Furthermore, they seek highly sensitive records such as the victim’s health records, including mental health records and even counselling notes, as well as information about their time in education and access to public services.
For our justice system to cast suspicion over victims of sexual offences and put their private lives on trial is antiquated and wrong. We believe this needs to change.
A burden on police, delaying trials
The average person’s smart phone contains the equivalent of 30,000 A4 pages of documents. Some phones contain over 200,000 messages and over 100,000 photos.
The police’s current practices are causing them serious problems, as they are swamped by vast amounts of irrelevant information in individual cases. This is leading to huge delays of a year or more in rape investigations.
The Metropolitan Police and a dozen other forces have begun using artificial intelligence software to examine victims’ devices and “analyse links (…) to reveal hidden connections (…) and communications patterns.” The experimental use of commercial software for such sensitive investigations lacks fairness and transparency, and is unlikely to inspire the trust of victims.
‘Consent’ or ‘Stafford’ statements
Victims are being pressured into consenting to the access to and disclosure of their personal information by signing away their privacy rights under blanket ‘consent’ statements, also known as ‘Stafford’ statements.
Police present ‘Stafford’ statements to victims as a ‘consent form’ – but people are unlikely to understand the full extent of what they are consenting to and the rights they are losing.
Victims are told that if they don’t consent to their phones being investigated and their personal records collected, their case is unlikely to continue to trial.
This leaves victims in an impossible situation: if they consent, their private lives could be investigated, their data stored for decades, and their personal information used in attempt to discredit them in court. If they do not consent, they could be denied justice and a rapist may walk free.
No one should have to choose between their rights and justice.
OUR CALL FOR CHANGE
At a time when more women and men than ever are pursuing justice against sex offenders, the justice system is letting them down.
We’re calling for change, now:
Victims’ consent to access their personal records should be specific and limited to the information relevant to the crime – not blanket. Victims of crime should never have to sign away their privacy rights in the pursuit of justice.
The police’s digital evidence technology should be brought up to date so police can collect targeted pieces of evidence from smart phones, rather than entire digital copies. Police should not be using AI to conduct fishing expeditions through victims’ phones.
We have written to the Information Commissioner calling for an urgent investigation.
Our letter (click to read):
We will join forces with other groups working in this area to change this unacceptable situation for victims.
FAQ + MYTHS
One of the main problems in this area are the pervasive and harmful myths and misinformation around rape trials and victims of sexual offences.
- Shouldn’t police investigate people making rape allegations, in case it’s a false allegation?
- Don’t suspects also have their personal information investigated?
- Why do police access victims’ mobile phones?
- Why can’t the police just take the relevant evidence from the phone, such as specific messages? Why do they take everything?
- Surely police don’t have time to read thousands of pages about victims’ private lives?
- If someone has nothing to hide, shouldn’t they have nothing to fear?
- How is this obstructing justice?
- If victims consent to giving police their data, what’s the problem?
- What rights do victims have over their personal info?
- Case studies