Police Data Victims Report: Digital Strip Searches

30th July 2019 / United Kingdom

The text below is the Executive Summary of the July 2019 BigBrotherWatch police data investigations of victims report.


The widespread use of mobile phones and other digital devices in people’s everyday lives means we increasingly leave a data trail everywhere we go.

Our digital footprints can reveal where we have been and when, who we have spoken to, the content of our private conversations and, via our internet history, even some of our innermost thoughts. More and more, such data is being sought in criminal investigations.

Clearly, data from devices can be highly relevant to investigations, particularly if the offence involves digital communications. But our research has revealed that police are seeking masses of personal data by default that is not relevant to an investigation at all, and may not be lawful.

The scale and depth of the police’s mobile phone searches are incomparable with the police’s legislative powers to carry out physical searches. It would amount to police searching someone’s property and taking copies of all photographs, documents, letters, films, albums, books and files. These would be intrusive searches even for most suspects of crime. But now, police are carrying out these intrusive digital searches against victims of crime.

Police, pressured by the Crown Prosecution Service, are demanding victims sign blank cheque “consent” forms allowing access to their digital lives, warning them that the investigation will likely be discontinued if they refuse. The police use mobile phone extraction tools to download the contents of victims’ mobile phones and digital devices. Victims who do give blanket consent to these digital interrogations are afforded no protections. All the data taken from their devices, which can even include their social media accounts, can be kept by the police for up to 100 years. Victims are told that if there is evidence of any suspected offences found in that digital information, police will subject them, or a person they have communicated with such as a friend or family member, to a criminal investigation.


This creeping norm of using data trawls to treat victims like suspects marks a disturbing, radical change within our criminal justice system.


These digital strip searches are not only cruel, invasive and causing major delays to investigations – they breach victims’ fundamental rights and obstruct justice. These invasive practices are highly likely to infringe victims’ data protection and privacy rights protected by the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.

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Our research shows that these digital interrogations have been used almost exclusively for complainants of rape and serious sexual offences so far. But since police chiefs formalised this new approach to victims’ data through a national policy in April 2019, they claim they can also be used for victims and witnesses of potentially any crime. The searches appear to be driven by a generalised suspicion of complainants, and mobile data trails are increasingly being seen as character references.

By analysing victims’ digital lives, police attempt to infer “evidence” from information spanning years, analysing what kind of person they are, examining who they have relationships with, and even speculating about their state of mind. Victims are faced with an impossible choice – the pursuit of justice or the protection of their privacy. No one should be faced with such a choice.

This creeping norm of using data trawls to treat victims like suspects marks a disturbing, radical change within our criminal justice system. Any one of us could become a victim of a crime and suddenly find our private lives subject to intense digital scrutiny. Those who refuse will be exempt from justice.

This report is the first comprehensive examination of this new policy. In conclusion, we propose urgent reforms that would make the most of the opportunities digital evidence can bring to criminal justice, whilst protecting fundamental rights and the integrity of our justice system.


READ the full report HERE >>>




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