Under a new policy in Britain, rape victims must turn over their mobile devices to police or risk having their cases dropped. The change has outraged rights advocates, who say it will deter people from reporting crimes.
Police in England and Wales are urging victims of rape and sexual assault to allow authorities to search their phones and other electronic devices for data as part of new measures announced Monday.
Officers must now present victims with consent forms seeking access to emails, text messages, social media accounts, photos and other data. The form warns those who refuse the request that "it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue."
Police say victims will only be asked for their devices when necessary, and that officers will only examine information that forms a reasonable line of inquiry. But rights groups believe the policy is invasive and will stop people from coming forward to report sexual crimes.
The change was introduced after a number of rape and sexual assault cases before the courts collapsed when crucial evidence from mobile devices surfaced at the last minute.
Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave of the National Police Chiefs' Council said the new "informed consent" forms would be used "proportionately and consistently."
"We would never want victims to feel that they can't report crimes because of 'intrusion' in their data," Ephgrave said in a statement.
'Digital strip search'
The Center for Women's Justice said it was preparing a legal challenge against the policy on behalf of at least two rape victims. The law firm said the victims were told by police their cases would likely collapse if they didn't give up personal data.
"We seem to be going back to the bad old days when victims of rape are being treated as suspects," said the center's director, Harriet Wistrich.
Griff Ferris, policy adviser at Big Brother Watch, said the policy subjected victims to a "digital strip search."
The independent charity Victim Support said in a statement that giving authorities access to private information is "very likely" to distress victims.
"Most rapes and sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, so if they have been in contact with their attacker, they may worry that their claim won't be taken seriously and be less likely to come forward," the group said.
About 20% of women have suffered some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. The vast majority of victims did not report incidents to police.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that the issue was "complex" and that police "acknowledged that the use of personal data in criminal investigations is a source of anxiety."
"We want victims to have the confidence to come forward," he said.
nm/cmk (Reuters, AFP, AP)