Academics Move SC to Seek Guidelines for Probe Agencies Seizing Digital Devices

The petition says as investigating agencies operate with "unguided power" due to the lack of established rules, it could result in loss, damage and distortion of research work.

New Delhi: A group of academics has moved the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Central and state governments to lay down guidelines when investigative agencies seize, preserve and examine personal digital and electronic devices, the Bar and Bench has reported.

The petitioners – former JNU professor and researcher Ram Ramaswamy; professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University Sujata Patel; professor of Cultural Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University Madhava Prasad; professor of Modern Indian history at Jamia Millia Islamia Mukul Kesavan; and theoretical ecological economist Deepak Malghan – alleged that in the recent past there have been increasing instances where investigating officials have seized such materials.

Given that the probe agencies exercise “unguided power” over the materials in question, the petitioners say it leads to loss, distortion and damage to their precious research work, as the said devices contain almost the entire professional work of academics, and there has to be a civilised way in which probe agencies can do it.

“The academic community does and stores its research and writing in the electronic or digital medium, and the threat of damage, distortion, loss or premature exposure of academic or literary work in the event of seizure of electronic devices is considerable,” their petition said, according to Bar and Bench.

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Upon submitting to the court that there is no established procedure or guidelines in the law or even in the police manuals, a bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and R. Subhash Reddy on March 26 issued notice to the Central government on the plea.

The petitioners have observed that although the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has some reference to a required procedure, there are no such guidelines as far as the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) are concerned.

On the question of seizure memo presented by investigating officials, the petitioners said it merely mentions that the name of the device confiscated, like a computer, laptop, or a phone, but not at all any specific information.

The petitioners said a copy of what is seized must be with the accused in a form that cannot be modified, including involuntary downloads, access, and interpolation can be detected. This, they say, prevents both probing agencies and the accused from tampering with the material concerned and allow for a fair investigation.

The petition also referred to Article 15(1)(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by India, contending that the same bind on the state parties to protect the moral and material interest in any scientific, literary or artistic work.

The petitioners contended that any information tampered with or damaged during the course of the investigation would be irreplaceable to sciences and social sciences.