UK watchdog inquiry into possible routine breaching of privacy and data regulations.
Examination techniques deployed by police and lawyers to trawl through rape victims’ mobile phones and private data in search of evidence are to be investigated by a watchdog.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced an inquiry into whether privacy or data protection regulations are being routinely breached in the criminal justice system.
The investigation follows concerns raised by the campaign group Big Brother Watch and other groups about the way private material is collected, analysed and disclosed to detectives, prosecutors and defence lawyers.
“Victims of serious sexual offence crimes are particularly vulnerable and it’s crucial that the rights they have in law are upheld in order to maintain confidence in the UK’s criminal justice system and their continued willingness to come forward and report crimes,” James Dipple-Johnstone, the deputy commissioner for operations at the ICO, said as he announced the investigation.
There have been multiple complaints from victims and support organisations alleging “excessive use of victims’ personal information in cases of rape and serious sexual assault”. A concern is the Stafford statement, the consent form victims are asked to sign giving police access to their personal data. Material subsequently disclosed can include highly sensitive records such as medical, education, psychiatric, social service and family court reports.
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“These statements are often signed in the immediate aftermath and shock of the crime, and, we are told, victims can often be unclear as to what they are consenting to and why,” Dipple-Johnstone said.
The ICO said it would track victims’ information through the criminal justice system “to identify areas where victims’ information is most vulnerable or where processing may be excessive and disproportionate”.
Disputes over late disclosure by police of crucial evidence in rape and sex offences led to scores of cases collapsing this year.
The volume of digital data generated by even routine cases is causing severe problems for the criminal justice system. Defence barristers complain that they are not being paid adequately for reading hundreds of pages of digital printouts while detectives are overwhelmed by the quantity of information.
Establishing precisely what material is relevant to any rape or sexual assault prosecutions is often the subject of legal dispute.
Griff Ferris, the legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “We welcome the information commissioner’s announcement of a high-priority investigation into demands for rape victims’ mobile phones and private records.
“We also urge the police and the CPS to take action to protect victims of rape from these digital investigations, which are swamping police in irrelevant information and obstructing the prosecution of potentially dangerous offenders. Treating victims like suspects is an affront to justice and a serious breach of people’s privacy rights. This broken system must change.”