The Times – Victims should not be subjected to digital strip searches

Writing in the Times, our Legal and Policy Officer Griff Ferris (with co-author Harriet Wistrich, Centre for Women’s Justice) makes the case against “complete surveillance” of victims’ digital private lives:

Victims of crime should not expect to be treated by the police like suspects. However, this is the distressing reality for many complainants of sexual violence who are subjected to these incredibly intrusive investigations.

Police, pressured by the Crown Prosecution Service, routinely request complainants of sexual offences to hand over their mobile phones, social media accounts and other personal information. Complainants are coerced into signing blank cheque “consent” forms, allowing access to their entire digital lives – if they refuse, the investigation is likely to be discontinued.

In this context of all contexts, authorities really should understand the concept of consent. These digital strip searches are cruel, invasive, and causing huge delays to investigations and cases — and they breach fundamental rights.

We agree with the two defence lawyers who wrote in The Times last week that denying police access to relevant evidence would undermine the right to a fair trial. But gathering relevant evidence from complainants’ phones is different to demanding complete surveillance of their digital private lives, which is what the new policy allows.

There is no requirement for police to specify what relevant lines of inquiry they are pursuing, the evidence they are seeking, to whom or about what the data they’re seeking relates to, or even the time frame for the data sought. Often an entire digital copy of the phone is taken, averaging 30,000 pages of deeply personal information spanning texts, emails, online messages, social media accounts, apps, photos and videos.

Even if only a single message or photo were sought, the minimal amount the police download is “almost all of the data you could see if you were to turn on the device and browse through it”, meaning thousands of irrelevant and private messages, emails and photos will be taken. The police can keep all of this information for up to 100 years.

This vast swathe of immaterial — but deeply personal and sensitive — information can then be snooped through in fishing expeditions, often based on harmful myths and stereotypes, for details to discredit the complainant. These practices are overwhelming the police, delaying cases for years and severely hampering the criminal justice system.

The system is failing those who place their trust in it. This not only violates privacy — it obstructs justice and puts the public at risk.

We need a proportionate and lawful approach that allows police to collect relevant, specific evidence from victims – not to collect masses of irrelevant and historic data and treat complaints’ phones as character references.

These excessive digital investigations treat rape victims worse than suspects and prevent offenders being brought to justice.

Harriet Wistrich is a solicitor and director of the Centre for Women’s Justice; Griff Ferris is legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch

Read our op ed on the Times.