07:12, February 16 84 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-16 07:12:03
Impact on rape victims of police phone seizures to be reviewed

The impact on rape victims of police seizures of their mobile phones is to be examined as the Metropolitan force begins piloting a data inspection system designed to limit invasion of privacy.

The review by London’s victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, comes amid precipitous falls in the number of rape prosecutions nationally and fears that intrusive methods are deterring complainants from reporting attacks or pursuing cases.

Waxman coordinated the groundbreaking London rape review last year which found that only 3% of rape allegations in the capital resulted in convictions.

The sharp fall in prosecutions follows claims from civil liberty organisations that police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) requests to download the contents of victims’ mobile phones amount to a “digital strip search” and are unlawful.

Women’s organisations also complain that officers frequently demand victims’ phones even where the reported assault involves someone who was a complete stranger.

Police and the CPS deny that complainants are asked to hand over their phones when it is inappropriate but acknowledge the explosion in the quantity of digital evidence is complicating investigations at a time of cuts to their resources.

They have also warned that victims of rape and serious sexual assault who refuse to give police access to their mobile phone contents may allow suspects to avoid charges.

Waxman’s investigation is timely and will provide detailed evidence to inform one of the most contentious areas of public debate over rape and the underfunded criminal justice system.

Her inquiry, expected to last three or four months, is being carried out by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). About 450 cases will be examined at three time points since 2017 over a period when police and CPS disclosure practices have changed. It will look at the frequency of disclosure requests, their impact on victims and the outcome of the case. Officers investigating rape and victims will be interviewed.

Waxman suspects one of the chief reasons for the decline in charge rates is anticipation that personal information from mobiles is being used to create “character assassinations” of victims and cast doubt on their credibility.

She told the Guardian: “I’m hoping to show how disproportionate requests for personal material is fuelling high level of victim withdrawals from cases and also the increase in police “no further action” and the decline in CPS charging decisions.

“Lack of resources is playing a part but it doesn’t go far enough to explain the full picture. We have lost sight of reasonable and proportionate disclosure and the legislation has not kept pace with phones.

“No one has analysed the impact of what’s happening with mobile phones. It was flagged up in the inspectorate report which said there had been a 40% increase in what lawyers considered to be disproportionate requests for private information on phones. The impact of this increase must be explored.”

Magnet Review is the new data inspection system being trialled by the Met. It is intended to copy only the specific records on any phone needed for an investigation by searching keywords and dates. Victims, it is hoped, will feel they are being granted greater privacy while detectives can focus better on what are described as “reasonable lines of inquiry”.

The inquiry follows an HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate report that said one of the main challenges was to “ensure that people are not deterred from reporting sexual offences to the police for fear that irrelevant details of their private life will be exposed to the suspect”.

The HMCPSI revealed that requests from prosecutors for evidence from complainants’ phones were disproportionate in four out of 10 cases. The most common issues were requests that did not set out clear parameters for getting information from a complainants’ device and using a generic approach to asking for personal data rather than “tailoring the facts to the case”.

Andrea Simon, of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “It’s concerning that it is becoming routine for those reporting rape to be asked to sign over access to a huge amount of their personal information and records, including whole downloads of mobile phones, and to be told that their case will not proceed without it.

“At a time when rape prosecutions are at their lowest ever levels, we need to be making it a priority to support victims to stay engaged in the justice system. Instead we subject them to highly invasive and costly trawls through their personal records and digital devices, the majority of which will have no relevance to the rape investigation.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is still conducting an investigation into the privacy implications of police use of mobile phone data.

A Metropolitan police spokesperson said it was committed to “providing the best possible service to victims of rape and sexual offences. We are working hard with partners to expedite the investigative process and improve it for victims who show great bravery in reporting offences committed against them to police.

“Officers will only seek access to a digital device in an investigation of this nature when it is a reasonable line of inquiry, and where it is proportionate and necessary to do so.

“The Met is currently trialling software, called Magnet Review, which is designed to make reviewing potential evidence found on a digital device much quicker and easier for officers.

“It is hoped that the software will significantly reduce the amount of time officers need to retain a mobile phone before returning it to a victim, and enable officers to better identify the information that is relevant to an investigation.

“It has so far been used to review digital material in a small number of cases and depending on the results of the ongoing pilot, it could be rolled out later this year.

“We are supportive of the important work being done by the victims’ commissioner and will continue to provide every assistance.”

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