Delhi HC Seeks I-T Department Stand on Plea by 'Newslaundry' Over Data Leakage

The bench observed that no one's data should be leaked as it is ethically, morally and legally wrong.

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New Delhi: The Delhi high court Friday sought income tax department’s stand on a plea by online news portal Newslaundry. The portal and its co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri have asked the high court to restrain any leakage of the material seized by the I-T department during a survey operation held earlier this month.

A bench of Justices Manmohan and Navin Chawla granted time to the department’s counsel to seek instructions on giving an undertaking against any leak and directed the concerned officer to be present at the next hearing which is scheduled for September 21.

During the course of the hearing, the bench observed that no one’s data should be leaked as it is ethically, morally and legally wrong. “We have seen it on channels, people’s data that has been seized is being displayed… It should not happen,” it further remarked.

The department’s counsel Ajit Shamra asserted that the fear of leak was a bald apprehension. Data of thousands of assessees is in safe custody of the department and it can be used only in accordance with law, he added.

Appearing for the petitioners, senior counsel Siddharth Dave said that four notices under the Income Tax Act were issued to his clients and a survey was held in the news portal’s premises on September 10. During this survey, several devices, including a mobile phone and a laptop belonging to the petitioner co-founder were seized by the I-T authorities. These devices contained several information which were of no relevance to any income tax proceedings.

Dave argued that the data may contain personal photos and information pertaining to investigative stories. He said any data breach would be in violation of right to privacy and therefore a direction should be passed to the I-T authorities to not leak any data and delete whatever is of no relevance to the proceedings.

It was also contended that any seizure during a survey operation was beyond the scope of survey and that no hash value of the seized data was given.

Also read: ‘Intimidatory and Blatant Attack’: Editors Guild on It ‘Survey’ at Newsclick, Newslaundry

In the petition filed through advocate Nipun Katyal, the petitioners have said that the income tax officers and authorities do not have any power to interrupt the ordinary peaceful citizens of the country in any manner they like by utilizing the large powers given to them, without keeping strictly within the four corners of those large powers.

“The petitioners are heading a news organisation, the petitioners herein have sources, contacts and other information on the digital machines. It is the fiduciary duty of the petitioners to protect them and keep the information confidential.”

“It is further submitted that the legal communication regarding existing cases is present in the personal laptop and phone of the petitioners. If in any circumstances, the leaks are committed, it shall be a clear breach of the attorney client privilege as well as whistleblowers confidentiality,” the plea said.