7 reasons why I don’t support police checking victims’ mobile phones in sexual violence cases
I have a good mind to just write the words:
BECAUSE IT IS VICTIM BLAMING
And then end the blog, to be honest with you.
Apparently, this is not exactly considered a great method of getting a point across or presenting a counter-argument so instead I will use this blog to present my key arguments against the police checking mobile phones of victims of rape and sexual violence.
I have worked in sexual violence for 10 years and this practice is nothing new. Today it hit the headlines that police would be using consent forms to ask victims of rape and sexual violence to hand over their mobile phones to check up to 7 years of evidence, media, messages, internet history and call logs when they report rape or sexual violence.
Media outlets have also reported that police have refused to take rape and sexual violence reports where the woman has refused to hand over her phone – resulting in viable cases being ignored and not investigated because the woman refused to give access to her data.
So let me tell you why I completely oppose this practice, and what I think it means for victims of sexual violence.
(Note: The majority of all sexual violence victims are women and girls based on national annual statistics and the perpetrators of all rapes are men based on the SOA 2003. Whilst perpetrators of other forms of sexual violence could be female, 97% of all sexual offences are committed by men. Therefore, this issue of checking phones of rape and sexual violence victims disproportionately AFFECTS women and girls and disproportionately PROTECTS male sex offenders from prosecution.)
Reason 1: This is a way to discredit the victim
Let’s be clear. This initiative is not to protect, support or help the victim of sexual violence in any way. I don’t care how many bows you tie around it, this is a way to discredit victims (mainly women and girls) so that the case is too weak to take forward and so no further action is taken.
The data from the phone could include call logs, internet history, text messages, locations, social media profiles, photos, videos, audio recordings, geodata, connections, friend requests, emails, journals, notes pages, files, dropbox, apps, internet shopping and even finance apps.
Just stop and think about how private this stuff is to you. That pic you took in the shower. That time you bought vagisil online. That time you googled gay porn. That time you spent ages looking at your ex’s Instagram. The messages you send to your best friend about how much you hate that bloke you work with who keeps being creepy. The social media accounts you follow. The tweets you posted about abortion rights. The time you recorded yourself trying to sing ‘Fighter’ by Christina Aguilera. The horrible messages you sent to your brother in a vile argument. That new dildo you bought from that online sex store.
Think about it. Think how this irrelevant shit could be used against you. This is what they want to find. Compromising information that can be used for Reason 2.
Reason 2: They are looking for characterological or behavioural ‘flaws’ that could undermine their case
The point of this invasive and unnecessary exercise is to look for evidence of things that undermine their case. Evidence of your character, behaviours, communication, the company you keep, who you talk to, the things you say online, the stuff you google, the selfies you take.
People reading this might think I’m overreacting or even over exaggerating here – but 10 years working in sexual violence has shown me that this has been happening for years. I’ve worked with women and children who have had iPads, phones and laptops removed to check for evidence when they were the victims of CSE, trafficking or rape. Some kids don’t get their phones back for years. I’ve worked with women who had their phones taken for evidence purposes to then have private information and data being used against them by the defence solicitors. I’ve interviewed women whose cases fell apart because they texted the rapist after the rape in a panic and then the police used that to argue she was lying.
One woman I interviewed texted the rapist a few hours later to say she was sorry. In the interview, she told me she apologised to him out of sheer panic and that she felt worthless and disgusting, and she had apologised to him for saying no repeatedly and not wanting sex which led to him raping her. She blamed herself, so she said sorry to him.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the police saw that message. That case was dropped.
Imagine a woman or girl is raped but the night before she was googling lingerie. Imagine a girl is messaging her best friend saying she cannot wait to have sex with her new boyfriend but the boyfriend then forces her to do things she didn’t want to do. Imagine a wife is sending messages to her abusive husband telling him she loves him, but he’s raping her every night when he gets drunk. Imagine a girl is being trafficked and she is on WhatsApp with the abusers who are telling her they will get her some weed if she gives them head and she agrees. Imagine a woman is sexually abused and Googles it for weeks before actually reporting to police and she is then questioned as to why she was googling all of the info about sexual abuse but not reporting.
Think about it. We already have cases in which children are being blamed for rape because they were wearing lacy underwear (Irish trial, 2018). Imagine that level of victim blaming and misogyny – but with all of the data on your smartphone.
Reason 3: Most (or none) of the data they will take from your phone and use against you is not even relevant to the case
This is important. Even in trials, lines of argument can be deemed inappropriate, evidence can be inadmissible, information can be hidden from a jury so as not to bias them etc.
So what strikes me as unfair about this practice is that the police are gaining data that is completely irrelevant to the offence. How is your photo album relevant to you being raped by your partner? How is your call log relevant to you being sexually harassed by that guy on the tube? How are your emails relevant to you being sexually abused in childhood?
This information is excessive and irrelevant. It would make much more sense if phones were only ever being taken in cases in which the phone contains the evidence (a video of the woman being sexually harassed on the tube, death threats from the ex-partner, call logs that prove the offender called the victim 68 times in the night he killed her, geodata that can prove the whereabouts of the girl when she was trafficked).
And of course, police will argue that this is precisely what they are looking for. But if the case doesn’t include technology and doesn’t require the confiscation and examination of the victims’ smartphone, why are they telling women they will drop sexual violence cases unless they hand over their phones?
Reason 4: Everyone is entitled to a private life
You know what? Even if you had googled ‘how to have good anal sex’ 15 minutes before you are anally raped by a man who ignored your boundaries, WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Even if you took a picture of yourself naked and sent it to some guy who three weeks later drugged you at a party and sexually assaulted you, WHY DOES THAT MATTER?
Even if you had sent your boyfriend 12 messages telling him how much you loved him on the weekend he beat you up, WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Everyone is entitled to a private life. None of this cancels out the crime of the perpetrator. Are we now sliding down a slippery slope of ‘oh well, she takes pictures of herself in her underwear so it can’t be rape’ or ‘oh she text him saying she loved him so it can’t really be domestic violence’? or ‘she likes watching porn so she can’t be a real victim of sex trafficking’?
Is that where we are?
Reason 5: One guy made a complaint against a woman and the whole fucking system changes but thousands of women suffer injustice and nothing changes for decades
Well, isn’t that just peachy?
One guy who is being held up as a victim of a ‘false rape allegation’ for which there is no evidence for, managed to kick the entire system into change within months whereas women’s rights and rape crisis organisations have been trying for decades for reform and achieved very little.
Let’s be clear, actual false allegations are appalling – but they are extremely rare and false rape allegations are one of the rarest types of false reports there are. Have a think how many people might falsely report their house was burgled for an insurance job. How many people falsely accuse people of harassment. How many people falsely report their phones or cars stolen. Where’s the outrage for those false reports? Where’s the massive systemic change? Do those victims of crime have to surrender their mobile phones too? To look for evidence?
How is it that women and girls have been being discriminated against, harmed, traumatised and blamed by the criminal justice system for decades and change is slower than a tired snail – but one guy kicks off about his case being mishandled and the entire system shifts?
Don’t worry, I know the answer to that question. We all do.
Reason 6: How come it’s so easy to manipulate innocent victims into handing over their phones but it takes us months or years for police to get hold of the phones of traffickers, rapists and child abusers?
In the same vein as reason 5 – if systemic and procedural change is this easy, can ANYONE explain to me why the professionals working in CSE, trafficking and child abuse are being told by police forces that there is nothing more they can do to disrupt perpetrators and that they can’t possibly seize phones and iPads without evidence or warrants?
How the hell have you managed to utilise tactics against victims that you can’t even use against child traffickers?
How have the police managed to convince other professions that change is slow and cumbersome, will take years and will be hard to achieve – when this has been turned around in a matter of months?
How has blackmail been signed off as a tactic against victims?
‘If you don’t give us your phone, we will not take this case forward.’
I mean, wow.
Don’t ever let me catch police tell us again that changing the systems and practice takes years and we all have to be patient. Nope.
Reason 7: There is nothing in law which states that the police can blackmail you into giving over your phone and you are entitled to representation and protection from crime anyway
Everyone in this country has a human right to protection from crime and harm. Remember that. You have a right to be able to access law enforcement and protection. You have a right to be able to report a crime. You have a right to transparent and fair justice systems.
Being blackmailed into handing over your mobile phone so they can look through the last 7 years of data when you aren’t even a suspect or offender is NOT part of those rights. You do not have to surrender your mobile phone and have your own private life inevitably used against you. Don’t do it. It’s not in your best interests and police should not be allowed to refuse to take a case of rape or sexual violence on just because you won’t let some office jockey pour through your texts and photos looking for evidence that undermines their case so they have an excuse to drop even more rape cases than they already do.
My final word on this is:
What message is this new practice giving to rapists and sex offenders who are targeting women and girls? What are they learning from this?
That their victims must consent to having years of their private data checked before being believed? That their victims must not only be brave enough to report (87% never do according to CSEW, 2017), but also should let the police investigate completely irrelevant sources of private data to check their credibility?
To the police, you’ve made a grave mistake and you need to rethink this before you do major damage to individuals, reporting rates and to your own force reputation and public trust.
Written by Jessica Eaton