The police are facing a legal challenge after demanding that rape victims hand over personal data from their mobile phones – or risk the case collapsing.
Campaign organisation the Centre for Women's Justice (CWJ) has condemned forces for making “excessive disclosure requests” of women reporting the trauma of rape and sexual assault.
It said the practice was “clearly having a deterrent effect on the reporting of rape allegations” and that a legal claim is expected to be brought by at least two individuals.
The controversy has blown up after the police introduced new consent forms, which seek permission to access messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts.
The move is part of attempts to rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system after a string of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed because crucial evidence was only disclosed at the last minute.
Police and prosecutors say the forms are needed to plug a gap in the law, which cannot force complainants or witnesses to disclose their phones, laptops, tablets and smart watches.
Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions, said digital devices will only be looked at when it forms a “reasonable line of enquiry” and only “relevant” material will go before a court if it meets “hard and fast” rules.
But the CWJ gave the example of a woman, referred to as “Olivia”, who recently reported rape to police.
She said: "The data on my phone stretches back seven years and the police want to download it and keep it on file for a century.
“My phone documents many of the most personal moments in my life and the thought of strangers combing through it, to try to use it against me, makes me feel like I'm being violated once again.”
CWJ argues that the consent form policy discriminates based on sex, breaches the data protection act and the right to privacy.
“It is now routine for any rape complainant to be asked to provide their mobile phone data when reporting a crime,” said its director, Harriet Wistrich. “We seem to be going back to the bad old days when victims of rape are being treated as suspects.”
In addition, the Information Commissioner's Office said it has launched an investigation into use of data extraction technology on the mobile phones of suspects, victims and witnesses.
“This is to identify areas where victims' information is most vulnerable or where processing may be excessive and disproportionate,” a spokeswoman said.
But Hill said: “If there's material on a device, let's say a mobile phone, which forms a reasonable line of enquiry, but doesn't undermine the prosecution case and doesn't support any known defence case, then it won't be disclosed.”
Image from paulclarke.com