Campaigners denounce “abject failure” of police to reform digital investigations of rape victims

Privacy rights organisation Big Brother Watch has joined with victims’ rights campaigners and MPs to urge police to reform policies that result in “digital investigations” of rape victims.

The call, backed by Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women, Liberty, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) victims lead Vera Baird, Jess Phillips MP and Caroline Lucas MP follows new national police policy on mobile phone extractions, which Big Brother Watch says is “an abject failure to protect victims’ privacy rights from spurious investigations”. The policy requires victims of rape to agree to mass data downloads from their phones, or even a full copy of their phone data to be taken, even if only a single message or photo is relevant.

The campaigners have told police that “victims of crime should never have to sign away their privacy rights in the pursuit of justice” and warned against forces using artificial intelligence to conduct “fishing expeditions” through complainants’ phones.

The new national policy entitles police to conduct mass data downloads from victims using mobile extraction technology. The ‘Digital Processing Notices’ tell victims police intend to extract entire “data categories from the device e.g. call data, messages, email, contacts, applications (apps), internet browsing history etc.” and that “even though we may only consider a limited number of messages relevant to the investigation, the tool may obtain all messages”. Police can keep the data for 100 years.

Big Brother Watch described the police’s technology as “antiquated” and warned that “an avalanche of irrelevant information is overwhelming the police, delaying investigations for years, and severely hampering the criminal justice system.”

The National Police Chiefs Council issued the new Digital Device Extraction and Digital Processing Notice to all police forces last week. They state that the police’s digital evidence technology “will not be able to obtain material using parameters such as a specific time period” meaning that police download masses of irrelevant information. Police warn victims that if they refuse permission then “it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue”.

Big Brother Watch said this “forces victims into signing away their privacy and data protection rights” and could breach human rights law. Legal and Policy Officer, Griff Ferris, said “no victim should have to make a choice between privacy rights and justice”.

The new police notice also tells complainants that if their phone contains information about “the commission of a separate criminal offence”, then this will be “retained and investigated”.

The Metropolitan Police and several other forces have also begun using artificial intelligence software to examine devices, which can “analyse links (…) to reveal hidden connections (…) and communications patterns.”1

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, has previously stated that “while an accused has a right to a fair trial, complainants are entitled to protection from unnecessary and unjustified invasion of their private lives.”2

The Chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, Sara Thornton, has said that “we cannot allow people to be put off reporting to us because they fear intrusion into their lives and private information that’s not relevant to the crime being shared in court.”3

Vera Baird, the victims’ lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, warned that “we need to ensure that complainants are not discouraged from coming forward to report sexual offences by inappropriate “fishing” into personal records, access to which is demanded in no other kind of case”.4

Griff Ferris, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch said:

“There has been an abject failure to protect victims’ privacy rights from spurious investigations, with police forcing victims into signing away their privacy and data protection rights. No victim should have to make a choice between privacy rights and justice.”

“Treating rape victims like suspects delays investigations and trials, deters victims from reporting serious crimes and ultimately obstructs justice. We urge the police and the CPS to take action to protect victims of rape from these excessive digital investigations.”

 

Notes for Editors:

The full joint policy statement is below:

  • Victims’ consent to access their personal records should be freely given, specific and limited to the information identified as 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 artificial intelligence to conduct fishing expeditions through victims’ phones.

Full list of signatories: Big Brother Watch, Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women, Liberty, Police and Crime Commissioner and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) victims lead Vera Baird, Jess Phillips MP and Caroline Lucas MP.

Big Brother Watch’s campaign, Victims Not Suspects, is here: https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/all-campaigns/victims-not-suspects/

 

3 NPCC Chair Sara Thornton, Police Chief’s blog, 11 February 2018 (https://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/police-chiefs-blog-cc-sara-thornton-on-disclosure)

4 Dame Vera Baird QC, PCC for Northumbria, ‘Letter to Justice Committee’, 14 February 2018 (http://www.apccs.police.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Letter-to-Justice-Committee-Chair-regarding-disclosure-in-criminal-cases-140218.pdf)