*This article contains references to rape and sexual assault.*

Today (May 31, 2022), the Information Commissioner’s Office called on the criminal justice sector to stop collecting “excessive amounts of personal information about victims of rape and serious sexual assault”.

In the report, John Edwards, the UK’s Information Commissioner, said: ‘Victims are being treated as suspects and people again feel victimized by a system they hope to support. […] Changes are needed to restore the trust that will allow more victims to seek the justice to which they are entitled.

In light of the report, Deborah Linton spoke to Emily (34), a rape survivor who has first-hand experience of what it’s like to report this crime to the police. It’s his story.

In some ways, the investigation into my rape, at the hands of my ex-husband, was worse than the attack itself. In my most vulnerable moment, what followed was a digital strip search.

The police wanted to dismantle my whole life, to lay everything bare; extract 32 years of personal data to judge – not if a crime had occurred – but whether or not I made a “good victim”.

A report released today by the UK’s data watchdog describes this intrusive process as ‘re-victimisation’ and calls for a system-wide change that will end it; a request that, as a survivor, I desperately hope will be met by lawmakers and met by politicians.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) paints a ‘sorrowful picture’ of how victims of rape and sexual assault are treated by the police and justice system, where we are told to give consent to “extraordinary” and “disproportionate” amounts of often irrelevant but deeply personal information” about our lives following an attack.

He calls for an end to the use of “Stafford statements”, the documents that expect victims, like me, to sign blanket consent to their personal data – from phones to school and medical records – not for the period when a crime is alleged to have occurred, but all the way back to childhood, with no further substantiation.

When I reported an assault by my ex, in the summer of 2019, to which he later pleaded guilty, I also felt ready to report a rape, by him, that had taken place a year earlier. (At the time I was too afraid of losing him, that’s how it works.)

Within ten days the police requested a full download of my cell phone, from contacts and call logs to messages, location data, web history and social media, and access to my medical records for the duration of my relationship. When it was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), they wanted access to my medical records from birth, including mental health and counseling sessions, as well as school report cards, university records and records of social services from every address where I had lived. .

When I asked, ‘Why?’ they said to me: ‘To see if you are of good character’. My own data was used to investigate me, not the perpetrator. I became an advocate for myself in the face of police suspicion, negativity and derision.

The ICO describes this as a system that treats victims as suspects – victims who are more likely to be female, more likely to have a disability, and more likely to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Unfortunately, there are too many examples where these same identifiers are used by institutions to discredit or disadvantage people seeking help or justice.

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