Police and CPS to end ‘digital strip searches’ of sexual assault victims following legal threat

Rape victims will no longer be forced to hand over their mobile phones to police or risk their attacker walking free after police and prosecutors withdrew a controversial form for “digital strip search.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have told campaigners they will be withdrawing a consent form that allowed allowing officers to access messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts 

The announcement follows a legal challenge brought by the Centre for Women’s Justice last year which argued that the use of the forms was unlawful, discriminatory and led to excessive and intrusive disclosure requests. 

It was brought on behalf of two rape victims after criticims of the new policy by privacy and women’s campaign groups who said it treated victims like suspects, subjecting them to a “digital strip search” and deterring them from coming forward. 

If the victims refused to hand over their private data they would be warned that their case may not be pursued. 

The legal challenge brought by two women represented by CWJ, was issued in July 2019, but put on hold pending the publication of a report by the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Ms Denham ruled in June that police were extracting “excessive” amounts of personal data from victims’ mobile phones with little or no justification and in potential breach of data protection laws.

She warned the unnecessary extraction of reams of personal data from victims’ mobile phones risks undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system and could deter people from reporting crimes.

She ordered police chiefs to withdraw and rewrite the consent forms they use to get access to people’s phones because she says they fail to adequately explain the legal basis for the police’s digital intrusion into their private lives.

Harriet Wistrich, director of CWJ said,“we are relieved that these forms have finally been withdrawn from use, but they should never have been used in the first place. Their effect has been to delay rape cases and deter many victims from coming forward or continuing with their cases. We will work with the defendants to ensure something fair and proportionate is put in its place.”

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