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U.K. Police Have a Message for Crime Victims: Hand Over Your Private DataU.K. Police Have a Message for Crime Victims: Hand Over Your Private DataCrime victims and witnesses in Britain will now be asked to sign a consent form allowing the police to extract data from their electronic devices.CreditStefan Wermuth/ReutersImageCrime victims and witnesses in Britain will now be asked to sign a consent form allowing the police to extract data from their electronic devices.CreditCreditStefan Wermuth/ReutersBy Iliana MagraApril 29, 2019LONDON — The British police delivered a striking warning to crime victims on Monday: If you want the case to be pursued, be prepared to turn over personal data from your mobile phone, laptop, tablet or smart watches.“Police have a duty to pursue all reasonable lines of enquiry,” Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for criminal justice, said in a statement. “Those now frequently extend into the devices of victims and witnesses as well as suspects — particularly in cases where suspects and victims know each other.”But the new policy raised concerns about potential invasions of privacy and the risk of discouraging people from reporting crimes, particularly offenses like sexual assault that are already underreported because victims fear being treated like the guilty ones.In many cases, the police already search digital trails, which can produce evidence that either backs up an accusation or casts doubt on it. Privacy advocates say that police departments often improperly download cellphone data from people they detain, without their knowledge or consent.Under the new approach, victims and witnesses will routinely be asked to sign a form saying that they consent to the police extracting data from their electronic devices, which can mean text messages, emails, contacts, social media records, internet browsing history and more. Otherwise, the case might not proceed.How much data the police extract will vary from one investigation to another, and the police say they will focus on collecting information that may be relevant to the case at hand. But, they warned, if investigators stumble across something incriminating — even if it is irrelevant to the original case — the accuser can become the accused.“If information is identified from your device that suggests the commission of a separate criminal offense, other than the offense(s) under investigation, the relevant data may be retained and investigated by the police,” according to written statement to victims and witnesses that will accompany the consent form.Anything the police find, it says, will be handed over to prosecutors. And in some cases, devices might not be given back to their owners for weeks or even months.“These excessive digital trawls set an alarming precedent for the criminal justice system,” Griff Ferris, a legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, a nonprofit civil liberties group, said in an email on Monday. “Treating rape victims like suspects in this way delays investigations and trials, prolongs distress for both victims and suspects, deters victims from reporting and obstructs justice.”Most sexual assaults are committed by people who are known to the victims, and there might be electronic proof of friendly communications between them. As a result, according to Victim Support, a nonprofit group in England and Wales, the new policy could discourage victims from reporting, fearing that they will not be believed.Mr. Ephgrave, the assistant commissioner, acknowledged such concerns in his statement.“We understand that how personal data is used can be a source of anxiety,” he said. “We would never want victims to feel that they can’t report crimes because of ‘intrusion’ in their data.”“That’s why a new national form has been introduced,” replacing policies that varied from place to place, “to help police seek informed consent proportionately and consistently.”But the form was criticized because of the possible repercussions for victims who refuse to lay bare their digital lives: The police and prosecutors might drop their cases.Victim Support argued that the policy could leave victims feeling coerced into agreeing to the electronic searches.Katie Russell, the national spokeswoman for Rape Crisis England and Wales, an umbrella organization for rape crisis centers, said it was a misnomer to refer to the forms for victims and witnesses as “consent forms,” because “complainants don’t have a full and free choice as to whether to agree to the scrutiny and storage of their personal data.”Who decides what is relevant, and by what standards, will not be clear to people reading the forms, she said, and the policy could result in victims being subjected to greater scrutiny than suspects.Survivors of sexual assault often decide not to go to the police because of “fear of the criminal justice system and of being made to feel ‘like the one under investigation/on trial,’ ” Ms. Russell wrote in an email.“In some cases, suspects’ phones aren’t even requested.”A version of this article appears in print on April 30, 2019, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: U.K. Requires Rape Victims to Hand In Phone. 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