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November 27th 2018

Civil Liberties

Unacceptable mistakes of police forces in handling sensitive information of crime victims are cause of major concern

Vicky Richardson

Vicky Richardson

Senior Litigation Executive, Civil Liberties

Unacceptable mistakes of police forces in handling sensitive information of crime victims are cause of major concern

When police forces and Government bodies fail innocent people they run the risk of losing both their confidence and their willingness to support future investigations by reporting and being prepared to give statements relating to serious crimes.

When police forces and Government bodies fail innocent people they run the risk of losing both their confidence and their willingness to support future investigations by reporting and being prepared to give statements relating to serious crimes.

And, given my work representing people badly let down by police forces in a wide range of scenarios, I feel this is an area of major concern.

In recent times there have been many basic and shocking errors made which have led to the most personal details of innocent people being lost, and potentially shared with others by mistake.

Sensitive information and data has been misplaced or lost by police forces as they have conducted investigations, including interviews with alleged victims – and those accused.

Forces have lost details with no record, and no knowledge of who, or how many people, may have seen the highly sensitive information as a result.

Such a situation can only cause greater distress to vulnerable victims of crime, many of whom are legally entitled to lifelong anonymity as victims of crimes such as sexual assault and abuse.

Given we live in a world which has become a mass of digital information and instant data transaction, it raises many concerns as to whether police forces are adapting quickly enough and revising and reviewing policies with regards to the handling of sensitive information.

This should cover how it is gathered, recorded, stored, and shared as part of ongoing investigations.

Fines handed out to police forces failing to protect details of crime victims

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which is responsible for upholding information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals, has had to take strong action in recent times against both a number of police forces, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

It handed out a £150,000 fine to Greater Manchester Police in May 2017 after three DVDs containing footage of interviews with victims of violent or sexual crimes were lost in the post.

Investigations found the force sent unencrypted DVDs, which showed named victims talking openly, for analysis at the National Crime Agency by recorded delivery but they were never received. The DVDs were never found.

In June of this year Gloucestershire Police were fined £80,000 by the ICO after sending a bulk email that identified victims of non-recent child abuse.

On this occasion an officer sent an update on the case to 56 recipients by email but entered their email addresses in the ‘To’ field and did not activate the ‘BCC’ function, which would have prevented their details from being shared with others.

Each recipient, which potentially included victims, witnesses, lawyers and journalists, could see the full names and e-mail addresses of all the others.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has also been found to be failing to properly protect victims of crimes, when DVDs containing the recordings of interviews with 15 victims of child sex abuse were lost.

The unencrypted DVDs contained the most intimate sensitive details of the victims, as well as the sensitive personal data of the perpetrator, and some identifying information about other parties.

The DVDs had been sent by tracked delivery between two CPS offices, were not in tamper-proof packaging and were left in the reception of a shared complex.

Sent in November, it was not discovered that they were lost until December and victims were informed the following March. It was not known what happened to the DVDs and as a result, the CPS was fined £325,000 by the ICO.

Data protection subject to increased legislation and regulation

In the current climate, we as individuals have become increasingly aware and more careful with regards to how our personal information is gathered, used and shared.

Recent legislative changes around General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have made us all aware of the need to take extra care.

When it comes to organisations such as the police, and Government bodies, we would like to think that information relating to us in any form is completely safe and 100 per cent protected.

However, at Hudgell Solicitors we have represented an alleged rape victim against Humberside Police after officers lost her case information, including her recorded interview.

Highly sensitive details, which were contained in an envelope and not protected, went missing and were never found.

Sadly, we know this case has similarities to many others.

It is completely inexcusable that basic steps to protect sensitive information, such as encrypting details on discs and being extra careful when sending emails to large groups, have not been followed.

There can be no excuse for police forces making such oversights, especially when such sensitive and confidential information is involved.

It suggests a complete lack of professionalism and care when handing some of the most serious of allegations.

There are clearly serious lessons still to be learned, lessons which must be a priority if people are to have the confidence in the police and relevant agencies to protect their privacy which seeking justice in the years to come.

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