Victims Not Suspects: Frequently Asked Questions and Myths

We’re campaigning against the disproportionate investigations of victims of sexual violence.

This includes the excessive amounts of digital information requested from victims’ mobiles and other devices and victims’ personal records such as medical or school records, and the fact that victims are coerced into consenting to the collection and use of their personal information.

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.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions:

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.1

Don’t suspects also have their personal information investigated?

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.

Why do police access victims’ mobile phones?

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.

Why can’t the police just take the relevant evidence from the phone, such as specific messages? Why do they take everything?

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.

Surely police don’t have time to read thousands of pages about victims’ private lives?

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. 2

If someone has nothing to hide, shouldn’t they have nothing to fear?

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.

How is this obstructing justice?

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”.

If victims consent to giving police their data, what’s the problem?

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.

What rights do victims have over their personal info?

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.

Case studies

  • 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”.3
  • 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.5
  • 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.6
  • 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.”4
  • 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.7
  • 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.8