The police in England and Wales are to begin to ask the victims of crime to hand over their phones, to ensure prosecutions will going ahead.
The move comes after a number of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed after crucial evidence emerged when phones were checked.
But critics of the move are worried about the privacy impact and rape campaigners have said the move may stop women coming forward, and that it amounted to a “digital strip search.”
The BBC reported that consent forms asking for permission to access smartphone data such as emails, messages and photographs have been rolled out in England and Wales.
According to the police and prosecutors, the forms are an attempt to plug a gap in the law which says complainants and witnesses cannot be forced to disclose phones, laptops, tablets or smart watches.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill is quoted as saying the information would only be looked at where it forms a “reasonable line of enquiry”, with only relevant material going before a court if it meets stringent rules.
It is reported that the digital consent forms can be used for complainants in any criminal investigations. However, the reality is that they are most likely to be used in rape and sexual assault cases, where complainants often know the suspect.
And besides the privacy issue, there is another aspect of the digital consent form that is causing concern.
The form does apparently allow the victim to explain why they don’t want to give consent for police to access data.
But according to the BBC, the form also says “If you refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which would enable the defendant to have a fair trial then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.”
Of course, a lot of people’s everyday lives are found on their smartphones. This can include text messages, emails, social media, and photographs.
The latter can be problematic if they are intimate photos – a good case in point being the recent row involving Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and some of his intimate photos.
Rachel Almeida from Victim Support told the BBC that it was “very likely” that letting police access personal information on their phone could add to victims’ distress.
A legal challenge is already being planned, the Centre for Women’s Justice also told the BBC. A claim is expected to be brought by at least two women who have been told their cases could collapse if they do not cooperate with requests for personal data.
Civil liberties charity Big Brother Watch meanwhile said victims should not have to “choose between their privacy and justice”.
“The CPS is insisting on digital strip searches of victims that are unnecessary and violate their rights,” the organisation added.
But on the flip side, accessing smartphones can be important for disclosure reasons, especially after several court cases were halted because of evidence was not being shared with defence solicitors.
The BBC also said there were concerns that evidence was not being disclosed early enough.
It cited student Liam Allan, 22 at the time, who had charges dropped when critical material emerged while he was on trial.
The Metropolitan Police apologised to Allan for a series of errors in its handling of the case, in which he was wrongly accused of rape.
It is understood messages found on the alleged victim’s mobile phone included some saying what a kind person Allan was and how much she loved him. There were also references to rape fantasies, Allan’s lawyer Simone Meerabux confirmed at the time.
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