Police in the UK forced to scrap "digital strip searches" of complainants in rape cases 2 weeks ago

Police in the UK forced to scrap "digital strip searches" of complainants in rape cases

The police are withdrawing digital data extraction consent forms.

Last week, police in the UK were forced to get rid of digital data extraction forms from rape cases. These forms would require the complainant to consent to divulging all of their mobile phone data. That's all messages, call logs, images, etc. If this personal data was not handed over, in some cases the police would not proceed with the case.

Now, following campaigning from privacy and human rights groups and after a legal threat from two survivors of sexual abuse, those forms have been removed from the reporting process.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

"We welcome the decision from the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) and hope it leads to improving confidence in the justice system on the part of survivors of sexual assault."

The Centre for Women's Justice was one of the voices calling for the scrapping of the forms, describing them as unlawful and discriminatory, and said that they led to excessive and intrusive disclosure requests. They took on the case of two complainants who started a legal fight against the use of the forms. The Centre for Women's Justice had received inquiries from hundreds of other rape victims and frontline service providers raising concerns about the intrusiveness of the forms and saying that they were deterring victims from pursuing allegations.

'Courtney', one of the complainants, whose report of sexual assault was dropped by the UK police when she refused to hand over her mobile phone, said that she hoped this decision meant that other victims would not have to choose between justice and privacy.

She said:

"There was nothing consensual about these "consent forms" and it is a relief that the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] and police have finally accepted that. I approach this announcement with some trepidation, however, as I have been so seriously hurt and let down by the criminal justice system in the past. I am concerned that just doing away with the forms won't necessarily improve practice. I look forward to the day when I may effectively hold my attacker accountable and make our streets more safe."

'Olivia', the second complainant, said:

"My experience with the police and CPS was degrading and unlawful. I was raped by a stranger and the police demanded seven years of irrelevant data from me that predated the rape. Infuriatingly, the police and CPS have repeatedly said to the press that they only pursue reasonable lines of enquiry. This is untrue. I hope now that other women won't be subjected to these unlawful requests."

A report from the Information Commissioner's Office was published in June this year that followed an 18-month investigation into a number of different police forces' procedures for extraction of mobile data. It found that there was "no evidence" of police officers considering less intrusive alternatives to mobile phone extraction and said that "considerations of necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion were not, based on what we saw, sufficiently or routinely documented".

The form is due to be withdrawn from use and replaced by August 13, 2020.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said:

"This U-turn on digital strip searches is a huge success for our groups, the two women who bravely took on this legal challenge, and the thousands of people who signed our petition."