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End Digital Strip Searches

The system is broken. Victims are being systematically failed and criminals aren’t being brought to justice. Digital strip searches must end.

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UPDATE: Our FOI investigation found police dropped 100% of cases where rape victims declined a digital strip search. 1 in 5 digital strip search requests of rape victims were made to children; of adults 95% were women. The ICO has now published it's findings, validating our campaign: the police’s default approach to demanding

digital strip searches of victims of crime is unlawful, damaging and needs to end. Meanwhile, two courageous women — both victims of rape — are bringing a legal challenge to the police’s digital strip search policy they were subjected to. They have our full support. We are writing a witness statement to support their claim.

If you were the victim of a serious crime, you wouldn’t expect police to treat you like a suspect and investigate your private life. But that’s what’s happening to thousands of people reporting rape and sexual assaults. Police are demanding digital strip searches of victims’ phones and social media accounts, using mobile phone extraction technology.

Victims have described what it’s like being forced to choose between privacy and justice, and now half are dropping their complaints.

The facts

Police tech takes full phone copies or entire data categories — from all texts, messaging apps, emails, call records, photos, videos, social media messages, to even deleted data.

The average phone holds 30,000+ pages of personal data. This is what it looks like:
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Police can hold victims’ data for 100 years (!)

Police chiefs called for the digital strip search policy to be scrapped.

Excessive phone downloads can delay investigations for 3 years.

Take Action

1

Sign the petition

Join over 37,000 signatories in our powerful call for change. If enough of us sign the petition, we can make sure they backtrack.

Sign the petition now

2

Spread the word!

Increase your impact – ask your friends to sign the petition and support the campaign.

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3

Become a supporter

This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help us watch the watchers. Join us and receive a Big Brother Watch welcome gift!

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Have you been affected by this issue? You can tell us in confidence and seek advice. Contact us on info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk. If you wish to encrypt, you can find our PGP key here.

Our campaign

We believe victims of crime should be able to safely make reports to the police without being met with unjustified demands for their entire digital lives.

Our goal is to end digital strip searches of victims. We want police to introduce proportionate, lawful digital evidence tech and policies in their place that support investigations and protect people’s rights.

This is what we’ve done so far:

COALITION FOR CHANGE

We’ve built a powerful coalition of 11 women’s, victim’s and rights groups to call on the police and parliament to urgently change the system: Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, Centre for Women's Justice, End Violence Against Women Coalition, Fawcett Society, JUSTICE, Liberty, Privacy International, Rape Crisis England and Wales, Southall Black Sisters and The Survivors Trust. We’re supported by Dame Vera Baird (Victims Commissioner for England and Wales), Jess Phillips MP, Caroline Lucas MP and Mandu Reid(leader of the Women’s Equality Party).

We want urgent reform that:

  1. Protects victims’ consent to proportionate data requests and doesn’t require a choice between privacy and justice
  2. Brings police tech up to date to support proportionate investigations
  3. Rejects police fishing expeditions through private data, including by using artificial intelligence

REPORT

We published a report in Parliament, Digital Strip Searches: the police’s data investigations of victims, in July 2019, compiling the latest research, our legal and policy analysis, and victims’ first hand experiences in a comprehensive report.

Read report

Download PDF

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION

We wrote to the Information Commissioner’s Office in November 2018, calling for an urgent investigation, which was soon commenced. The ICO will be releasing two reports in 2020 – one on mobile phone extractions and one on victims’ personal information in the justice system.

MEETING DECISION-MAKERS

We’ve called meetings with the National Police Chief’s Council and the Crown Prosecution Service and directly made the case for a reformed system.

PETITION

We delivered them a petition too. Over 37,000 people so far have signed our petition to the police and CPS to stop forcing sexual assault survivors to hand in their phones in investigations.

SIGN HERE

IN THE MEDIA

MYTHS AND STEREOTYPES

Victims of sexual violence are being asked to hand over their mobile phones and all the information it contains, and are coerced into consenting to these digital strip searches.

However, 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?

False allegations are a very serious matter and any evidence that someone is lying to the police must be followed and investigated.

However, this doesn’t mean that every victim who reports to the police should be treated like a suspect of that crime and have their private life investigated by default. Treating victims like suspects deters them from coming forward and bringing criminals to justice.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread belief in the UK, encouraged by media headlines, that there are a vast number of false allegations of sexual violence. This is a myth. In fact, the latest figures show that false accusations accounted for only 0.62% of all rape prosecutions. Link

They could do – this involves police formally seizing their devices under a law like the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE 1984). However, this does not happen by default. On the other hand, victims are routinely asked to give their ‘consent’ to police combing through their digital lives, and are often told that unless they surrender their smart phones and social media accounts for investigation their case is unlikely to proceed. Victims of other crimes are not treated this way.

We believe it is wrong for police to go on ‘fishing expeditions’ through masses of personal data, whether the data belongs to a victim or a suspect. Investigations should be intelligence-led and limited to the relevant evidence.

In some cases, there may be evidence such as messages or call logs on victims’ phones corroborating their account or the circumstances around the event. Most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim (90%), and not, as is often believed, by a stranger (10%).

However, rather than collecting the relevant pieces of evidence, the police’s outdated technology and policy means they are routinely downloading and investigating the entire contents of victims’ phones. This is unnecessary and wrong.

Smart phones contain up to 30,000 pages of private messages, texts, emails, photos and videos – as well as private information about us, our friends and family. It’s an unjustified invasion of privacy and a waste of police time to investigate victims’ entire digital lives.

The police say that the technology they have to extract information from phones is limited, meaning that even if they only want a single message from a phone, they have to take all of the messages.

Police have also said that digital forensic policy forces them to take an entire copy of all of the information on a phone.

This is unnecessary and wasteful, leading to delays for victims, suspects and the entire justice system - and wasting police resources. The police need up-to-date technology and policy to properly deal with digital evidence.

Exactly – they don’t.

Police say they are overwhelmed by the amount of data collected in these cases, which is leading to huge delays of up to 18 months for everyone involved. Link

Would you give your phone and social media accounts to the police, if something bad happened to you?

Understandably, lots of victims don’t want their private lives to be investigated; their phone data to be held by police for 100 years; their personal information given to an attacker.

In 2016, Kent Police was fined £80,000 by the Information Commissioner for handing the entire contents of a domestic abuse victim’s mobile phone to the attacker and his defence team. She had given the phone to police because it contained a single video supporting her account, but officers downloaded the entire contents including her personal text messages and photographs.

Police are concerned that the current process may prevent people from reporting sexual offences.

Sara Thornton, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council has warned that current practice could deter people from reporting rape, “because they fear intrusion into their lives and private information that’s not relevant to the crime being shared in court”.

The Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria has also said that “many complainants are not prepared to have their personal records accessed and will withdraw their complaint…. People may be put off complaining of sexual assaults”.

We believe that the 'consent' process currently used by police is not actually lawful consent.

Consent to the use of personal information must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

However, victims of sexual violence do not 'freely' give consent - told that if they don’t consent, their case is unlikely to continue and their attacker could walk free. Victims have to weigh up justice and public safety with their own rights and data protection.

Neither is consent specific for victims. Victims of sexual violence are asked to sign all-encompassing ‘consent’ statements that require blanket consent for police to freely access their personal records and devices. They effectively require victims to sign away their privacy rights.

This puts victims in an impossible situation: if they consent, deeply sensitive and personal details of dubious relevance to their case may be given to an attacker and even examined in court in an attempt to discredit them. If they do not consent, their case may not proceed to trial.

Everyone has the right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. We believe that this right should protect victims, and indeed all innocent people, from police collecting, investigating and storing personal information.

The 'consent' statements police give to victims effectively coerce them into signing away that vital right to privacy.

Anna (not her real name) made a rape complaint in 2016 against a man she alleged raped her while she was unconscious. She said that when the trial began, her phone was seized after another trial collapsed due to the late disclosure of digital evidence, saying that “The way police spoke to me, I felt ambushed and felt like I was a perpetrator and not a complainant”. Link

A woman who had reported pre-mobile phone era historic abuse had her case dropped when she would not consent to handing over her current phone. Link

A woman who reported rape by a stranger had her case dropped because she would not consent to her data being handed to the Crown Prosecution Service. Link

Rape Crisis have reported about an alleged rape “where police response was to search the survivor’s phone for information that related to 3 years prior to the rape. This time frame did not appear to be based on any guidelines and appeared arbitrary.” Link

In 2016, Kent Police was fined £80,000 by the Information Commissioner for handing the entire contents of a domestic abuse victim’s mobile phone to her partner’s lawyer, who passed it to the suspect. She had given the phone to police because it contained a single video supporting her accusation, but officers downloaded files including text messages and photographs. Link

In another case, a rape victim's forged note to avoid swimming because she was on her period at school was used as evidence of her dishonesty in a rape case. Link PDF

Take Action

1

Sign the petition

Join over 37,000 signatories in our powerful call for change. If enough of us sign the petition, we can make sure they backtrack.

Sign the petition now

2

Spread the word!

Increase your impact – ask your friends to sign the petition and support the campaign.

Send a tweet

3

Become a supporter

This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help us watch the watchers. Join us and receive a Big Brother Watch welcome gift!

Donate now

Have you been affected by this issue? You can tell us in confidence. We can help advise you and signpost you to relevant support. Contact us on info@bigbrotherwatch.org.uk. If you wish to encrypt, you can find our PGP key here.