Rights groups call for urgent reform on police “digital strip searches” of victims

  • 10 campaign groups are calling on police for urgent reform, including Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women, Fawcett Society, JUSTICE, Liberty, Privacy International, Southall Black Sisters, The Survivors Trust
  • Big Brother Watch is today launching a report in parliament claiming the police’s new policy is “unlawful” and needs “urgent reform”
  • Big Brother Watch delivers petition signed by 35,000 to Policing Minister and CPS

Campaigners are calling on the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently revise a new policy that requires victims of crime to hand in their phones for mass data downloads.

Privacy and civil liberties NGO Big Brother Watch is today launching a new report, Digital Strip Searches: the police’s data investigations of victims, in parliament, claiming the policy is unlawful and needs urgent reform.

Big Brother Watch’s report claims the digital searches are “highly likely to infringe victims’ data protection and privacy rights” and are “causing major delays to investigations”.

New forms called ‘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 need to download “almost all of the data you could see if you were to turn on the device and browse through it”.

The police form states that the allegations may not be investigated or prosecuted if they refuse, but that if the case does continue, “defence representatives will be told of your refusal”.

The new forms also warn victims that if evidence is found on their phones relating to other criminal offences, they will be investigated. This has caused victims to fear that they may be investigated for minor offences, or that they may incriminate their friends or family by handing over their phones to the police.

Victims’ groups and MPs have warned that the policy is deterring rape victims from going forward to police. After rights groups raised concerns, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched a high-priority investigation into the issue which is ongoing.

Ten human rights organisations, including Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, the Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women and JUSTICE, have today renewed calls for police chiefs to urgently revise the policy.

Their call is also backed by Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales and Jess Phillips MP. They will speak at the report launch in parliament this evening, alongside the Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti.

This morning, Big Brother Watch delivered a petition of 35,000 signatures to the Policing Minister and CPS, calling for the policy to be changed.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

“These digital strip searches are a gross invasion of victims’ privacy and an obstruction of justice. Our phones contain emails, social media accounts, app data, photos, browsing history and so much more. These phone downloads can even exceed the information gathered from a police property raid.

“Understandably, many victims are refusing to be violated in this way. But no victim should have to make a choice between their privacy and justice.

“The digital interrogation policy doesn’t allow victims to give police relevant pieces of evidence without feeling like their private lives will be put on trial. This disproportionate approach bears none of the basic qualities required by data protection or human rights law, and it’s staggering that the policy is yet to be revoked. Police chiefs must urgently retract the policy and devise a more competent, proportionate and lawful approach.”

Dame Vera Baird, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said:

“Big Brother Watch has done a detailed analysis. It confirms that uniquely in rape cases more demands for the content of digital devices are made of complainants than can lawfully be made of defendants.

“Unless they sign the entire contents of their mobile phone over to police search, rape complainants risk no further action on their case. These are likely to be traumatised people who have gone to the police for help.

“Brave and public spirited enough to contemplate giving the most intimate evidence at court, many are discouraged by what looks like scrutiny of whether they are suitable or worthy.

“As Victims’ Commissioner I will work to get dignity and respect for victims which means an end to this incomprehensible intrusion into their privacy.”

Chiara Capraro, Amnesty International UK’s Women’s Human Rights Manager, said:

“We’re deeply concerned that the police are infringing the privacy of victims while also contributing to dangerous myths and stereotypes about rape.

“Rape is massively under-reported, on top of which there’s been a very worrying fall in prosecutions taken forward as so-called ‘weak cases’ are dropped in an apparent bid to improve woefully low annual conviction rates.

“The whole dysfunctional system for dealing with the survivors of sexual violence needs urgent attention if we’re to even come close to protecting the rights of thousands of women and girls in this country.”

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

“Many women are fearful of reporting rape for a variety of reasons including the fear they will be disbelieved or judged. The requirement to hand over the whole of their data history is an additional disincentive to a massively under prosecuted crime.

“The case law clearly establishes that the police should conduct only ‘reasonable lines of inquiry’ into the complainant: that should be reviewing data directly relevant to the offence they are investigating.

“We are preparing a legal action on the basis these consent forms are unlawful as they discriminate against women – who are the vast majority of rape victims – as well as a violation of the right to privacy, and of data protection principles.”

Claire Waxman, Victims Commissioner for London, said:

“This report further demonstrates why I called on the ICO to investigate the practice of digital evidence collection. With conviction rates as low as they are, we cannot afford to be forcing victims to choose between their rights to privacy and justice. The consent forms should never have been touched until post the ICO investigation, and I have called on police and CPS to reform this practice once the ICO investigation has concluded”

ENDS

NOTES:

  • Female victims with experience of phone download requests can be available for interview. Please contact Big Brother Watch to enquire 07730 439257. Please provide as much notice as possible.
  • Silkie Carlo is available for interview. Please contact us to enquire on 07730 439257.
  • The report launch is on Tuesday 23rd July 2019, 5pm – 7pm, in Committee Room 14 in the Palace of Westminster. You must register to attend – please contact info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk to request a place.

Speakers at the event are:

  • ‘Courtney’*, survivor (*pseudonymised to protect anonymity)
  • Bonny, survivor
  • Vera Baird QC, Victims Commissioner for England and Wales
  • Claire Waxman, Victims Commissioner for London
  • Shami Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General
  • Jess Phillips MP
  • Carolyn Harris MP
  • Harriet Wistrich, Centre for Women’s Justice
  • Katie Russell, Rape Crisis England and Wales
  • Silkie Carlo, Big Brother Watch

Our new report is available here: Digital Strip Searches (2019).