The Information Commissioner’s Office has confirmed it is investigating UK police forces’ use of so-called "digital strip searches" for which victims of crime are forced to sign over large amounts of data, potentially spanning years, from their phones.
The move follows demands by ten human rights organisations - Big Brother Watch, Amnesty International, Centre for Women’s Justice, End Violence Against Women, Fawcett Society, JUSTICE, Liberty, Privacy International, Southall Black Sisters and The Survivors Trust - for the National Police Chiefs’ Council to urgently revise the policy.
They want to ensure that police forces cannot access personal data without victims first giving their permission.
Big Brother Watch claims the “digital searches” not only infringe victims’ data protection and privacy rights, they are also causing major delays to investigations. In a report published this week, the privacy group claims the issue is deterring many victims from coming forward and continuing with prosecutions.
The Digital Processing Notices, rolled out in England and Wales in April this year, warn that allegations may not be investigated or prosecuted if victims refuse to sign, but that if the case does continue, “defence representatives will be told of your refusal".
Campaigners claim victims fear they may be investigated for minor offences, or that they may incriminate their friends or family by handing over their phones to the police, as the forms also warn that if evidence is found relating to other criminal offences, they will be investigated.
The campaigners’ call is also backed by Dame Vera Baird, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, and Claire Waxman, Victims’ Commissioner for London.
Dame Vera said: “Big Brother Watch has done a detailed analysis. It confirms that uniquely in rape cases more demands for the content of digital devices are made of complainants than can lawfully be made of defendants.
“Unless they sign the entire contents of their mobile phone over to police search, rape complainants risk no further action on their case. These are likely to be traumatised people who have gone to the police for help.
“Brave and public spirited enough to contemplate giving the most intimate evidence at court, many are discouraged by what looks like scrutiny of whether they are suitable or worthy.
“As Victims’ Commissioner I will work to get dignity and respect for victims, which means an end to this incomprehensible intrusion into their privacy.”