Rape victims still forced to undergo ‘digital strip searches’, watchdog says | UK News
Nearly a year after government pledged to overhaul how rape cases are investigated, victims are still being asked to hand over their cellphones amid ‘excessive’ police scrutiny, Commissioner’s Office says independent (ICO).
Trauma victims are given “broad” consent forms for digital searches when they are unable to give “meaningful informed consent”, Information Commissioner John Edwards has told Sky News.
“Investigators should limit themselves to questions that are relevant to the case under investigation and not wade through the ancient history and intimate life of someone who has just experienced a traumatic incident,” he said.
“In the vast majority of cases, this shouldn’t be necessary as one of the sorts of opening maneuvers in an aggravated sexual assault investigation.”
Mr Edwards is calling for an immediate end to the collection of large amounts of information – including phone scanning described as a “digital strip search” – due to fears that victims of rape and other serious sexual offenses continue to be “treated as suspects”.
Georgina Fallow was raped in 2018 on her way home late at night.
She now volunteers to help victims of rape and sexual violence.
Ms Fallow says she repeatedly hears stories of victims who feel treated like suspects because of the amount of information requested by the police.
She told Sky News: “You have such a need for control at this point because you feel like you have to protect everything, physically, emotionally, whatever.
“It was more like ‘I don’t have a say in how my information is used’, and that’s what personally, in my case, made me hesitant to go any further.”
Ms Fallow added: ‘Justice is not happening because women worry about whether or not they have equality in the process, and at the moment we don’t have equality in the process.’
Sky News has also spoken to a rape survivor who had her digital data and medical records taken – to get this her phone was taken by police for almost a year. She chose to remain anonymous.
She said: “The hardest thing for me was in my case, the defense decided it wasn’t enough to just have uploads, they were worried they were running out of information, so they asked the CPS to meet in face to face and go through my social networks.
“It was frustrating not having a phone and when I asked why it was taking so long they said it was because there was too much information and not enough services available to process the number of requests for digital downloads for the number of cases.
“You can give all this information and you will feel like it will never be enough.”
The government announced its Rape Review last summer in which it said the digital material requested from victims would be “strictly limited” to what was “necessary and proportionate to allow reasonable investigative leads into the alleged offence”.
But the latest report from the Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO) found that victims “are asked to consent to handing over extraordinary amounts of information about their lives, immediately after a life-altering attack”.
It comes as campaigners continue to cite low conviction rates for sexual offensesthe latest figures from the Home Office showing just 1.3% of the 67,125 rape allegations recorded by police in 2021 leading to prosecution.
The ICO report makes several recommendations, including for the National Council of Chief Constables to require all constables to stop issuing forms to victims indicating their general consent to obtain information.
Read more: Rape trial advice for prosecutors could ‘deter’ women from seeking help, campaigners say
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘We need to ensure that victims and witnesses are confident that they will be treated with sensitivity and dignity when reporting crimes and that their privacy rights are respected. protected.
“That’s why we’ve strengthened the law that covers digital information requests, to ensure victims are only asked to hand over their phones where necessary and proportionate, and have funded £5m of new technology for 24 police forces to help us meet our rape review commitment that no adult rape victim will be left without a phone for more than 24 hours.
“We will also shortly launch a public consultation on police requests for personal information, such as medical or school records, to better understand the issues in this area and test possible solutions.”