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Digital strip searches: why this small change to the PCSC bill means a huge deal to rape victims

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Lauren Geall
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The government has agreed an amendment to the PCSC bill to protect rape victims from unnecessary “digital strip searches”.

The government has agreed to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill to protect rape victims from “intrusive and excessive” police requests for personal mobile phone data, in what is being called a “major breakthrough” for survivors.

Prompted by calls from the Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC, the changes will not only stop police officers from requesting mobile phone data unless they “reasonably believe” that information stored on the device could be useful to the line of enquiry, but will also make it illegal for police to place “undue pressure” on a victim to agree to their phone being searched – putting an end to the often-traumatic “digital strip searches” survivors are forced to undergo.

The Bill’s Code Of Practice will further specify that requesting any mobile phone data must only follow if it is “strictly necessary” in pursuit of the police’s line of inquiry, and victims must also be informed that declining to consent to hand over their phones will not lead to their police investigation being dropped – a reality many victims currently fear. 

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“Victims of rape are currently faced with an impossible choice: the pursuit of justice or the protection of their privacy,” Baird said in a statement. 

“It has become practically routine for rape complainants to face intrusive and excessive demands for personal data from their electronic devices, with no relevance to the investigation of the crime in question. Refusal of these demands frequently leads to cases being dropped by prosecutors.

“This has had a chilling effect on victim confidence and many victims are made to feel like they are the ones on trial, with their credibility repeatedly questioned and undermined.” 

Dame Vera Baird QC
Dame Vera Baird QC.

However, there are fears that these new amendments don’t go far enough – and Baird is also proposing similar amendments to limit unjustified police demands for personal information held by third parties, such as victims’ lifelong medical and social services records. These amendments have currently been tabled in the House Of Lords, and there’s hope that the government will also decide to back these changes.

While the police announced they would no longer use ‘digital processing notices’ – consent forms which gave the police the ability to extract unlimited amounts of personal data once a victim had signed – in July last year, the amendment to the PCSC bill affords survivors legal protection from such practices.  

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With statistics suggesting that fears about disclosure and privacy can lead to survivors a) withdrawing their complaint or b) not reporting in the first place, there’s hope that these latest changes could help more survivors to secure the justice they deserve.

However, with analysis of Home Office figures released last year revealing that fewer than one in 60 rape cases recorded by the police resulted in a suspect being charged, it’s safe to say more changes will be needed to ensure things actually improve.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.