London — Women's rights activists and groups that support victims of sexual assault say a practice by U.K. police of requesting blanket access to the personal data of people who report crimes is making victims feel like they have to choose between seeking justice, and maintaining their privacy.
The release of a new version of the consent form used by police to gain access to the data has caused an outcry.
A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) told CBS News that requesting the data was regular procedure for police forces in the U.K.
The NPCC spokesman said the new form was designed to provide "consistency across the board, so nationally there was a standardized version for forces to offer the same service."
What data are we talking about?
Police can collect personal data to investigate a variety of crimes and what they try to obtain ranges from case to case, but often includes medical, education and psychiatric records, as well as cell phone and smartwatch data.
Critics of the practice say the consent form poses serious risks, especially in cases of sexual assault.
"The issue I'm hearing from victims is that if they didn't want to share this information — and often they didn't, they didn't feel it was reasonable or proportionate to their complaint of rape — they were told the police might be unable to continue with the investigation and the Crown Prosecution Service wouldn't be able to consider a charge or look at prosecuting the accused without looking at the material," Claire Waxman, Victims' Commissioner for London, said. "It was putting victims into a very difficult situation where they almost had to choose between do I want to access justice or is my right to privacy more important?"
The NPCC disputed this claim, and said the police don't collect or seek personal data from all accusers, only when it is believed it will help bring a case forward. The Council also noted that the same personal data may also be taken from the accused.
"Completely disproportionate measure?"
Kate Ellis, a lawyer at the Centre for Women's Justice, told CBS News that the breadth of the personal data requested is unacceptable.
"There is no problem at all with an officer asking a complainant, 'look, you mentioned that you had text messages with the suspect, can we see those text messages? We're going to need to keep them.' A complainant telling the truth would have nothing to hide. But what's being done is a completely disproportionate measure, which is asking complainants to agree to everything that's on their mobile phone and evidence around their historical relationships with people, so that police can examine it and see if there's anything that might impute their credibility," she said.
Waxman, who works for the London government, noted that in recent years she's seen sexual assault victims feel re-traumatized and shocked by having to give away their personal data.
"They thought they were being investigated and they thought that was incredibly unfair," she said.
Waxman has also asked the U.K national government's Information Commissioner's Office to look into whether the practice is compliant with recently adopted General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) within the European Union. Though the commission has not made its final report public, the NPCC chose to release its updated version of the consent form as a new guideline.
"We are asking for your consent, and that meets GDPR," the NCPP spokesman told CBS News. "You can revoke that consent."
A chilling effect?
The police spokesman told CBS News that the consent form could be changed if the ICO recommends tweaks.
But critics are more concerned about the implications of the existing practice than possible changes to the new consent form.
Waxman and Ellis voiced concerns that victims would be discouraged from reporting sexual assault and rape, at a time when police referrals to prosecute rape have dropped 9.1 percent.
"They are putting rape complainants, having been through something that is very traumatic, that they are going to be told they either have to hand over their entire private life, or they are not going to get justice," Ellis said. "That's very problematic because the reality is that the majority of rapists get away with it."
Ellis is considering legal action to try to end the practice on behalf of her clients at the Centre for Women's Justice.
The NPCC stands by its guidelines, which it insists are intended to help carry out justice.
"We don't want to discourage (crime) reporting," the spokesman said.