Police will be banned from ‘digital strip searches’ of rape victims

Crying woman - Getty
Crying woman – Getty

Police are to be banned from “digital strip searches” of rape victims under a new law to prevent investigators trawling their sex lives, The Telegraph can reveal.

A new bill, to be unveiled next month, will only permit police searches of a victim’s mobile phones where it is strictly necessary, and to extract only the minimum of data required for their investigation.

The move follows criticism of police for “excessive” searches of victims’ intimate private lives because of fears of digital evidence surfacing at the last minute leading to the collapse of trials.

Campaigners have blamed the invasive disclosure demands for deterring up to half of women from pursuing rape allegations even when a suspect has been identified.

Rape prosecutions have plummeted in the past three years as the number of offences has risen to a record high. Of the 55,130 rapes in 2019/20, just 1,439 resulted in a conviction, half the 2,991 convicted three years earlier.

A Government source said: “We will put a statutory power into legislation that will clearly define what police officers can look at on phones and that they can only extract information that is strictly necessary to detect, investigate and prosecute the offence.”

The clauses in the Police Powers and Protection Bill will also require free, full and informed consent of victims after controversy over police forms that told them to hand over their phones or risk their attackers walking free.

The consent forms were introduced after a series of cases collapsed at the last minute, including that of Samson Makele, 28, who was cleared of alleged rape when the defence discovered pictures of him in bed with the woman that undermined her version of events.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) withdrew and rewrote the forms after information commissioner Elizabeth Denham found they led to “excessive” amounts of personal data being extracted from victims’ phones “with little or no justification” and in potential breach of data protection laws.

Ms Denham recommended a statutory code.

Asked about the new law, her spokesman told The Telegraph: “Before deploying the technology, appropriate safeguards must be in place so that it is only used where strictly necessary and only the minimum amount of data should be collected and used.

“We are continuing to work with the police, Government and other criminal justice organisations to ensure that the recommendations set out in our investigative report are implemented.”

Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London who has led campaigns for rape reform, welcomed any new law that would give “increased clarity” to police powers.

“If we are to ensure victims have confidence in reporting and supporting an investigation then police must ensure they are only obtaining data that is strictly necessary to the investigation and that the victim has clearly understood what data will be requested and how it will be used,” she said.

“We need legislation to set strict parameters about how much data is requested for rape investigations, and, if we are to continue with police requesting victim’s mobile phone data, victims must have access to legal representation to ensure their rights to privacy and justice are upheld.”

The law change will coincide with a major Government review of rape which has been delayed amid concerns that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) could be found to have unlawfully abandoned “weak” cases in order to boost conviction rates.

The proposed shake-up to reverse a collapse in rape convictions was due to be published before Christmas but has been postponed until after the Court of Appeal rules on claims that the CPS secretly adopted a “risk-averse” policy on rape prosecutions in order to hit conviction targets.