Supreme Court directs Central agencies to follow 2020 CBI Manual on seizure of digital evidence

The court said the procedure under the CBI Manual of 2020 would be followed till the Centre brings out new guidelines in six weeks

December 14, 2023 05:28 pm | Updated 07:04 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the Supreme Court complex.

A view of the Supreme Court complex. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The Supreme Court on Decembeer 14 ordered the Centre to adhere to directives in the CBI Manual to protect the integrity of personal data stored in electronic devices seized during raids conducted, especially, on members of the academia and media.

Appearing before a Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan and Sudhanshu Dhulia, Additional Solicitor General S.V. Raju said this would mean training the personnel of the other agencies in the CBI’s manual.

“Train them! They are trained for doing other things. Why can’t they be trained to do this?” Justice Kaul asked.

Senior advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan and advocate Prasanna S., for petitioners, said the CBI Manual may not extensively protect the corruption of data or malicious implanting of files in confiscated devices. Ms. Ramakrishnan said the Manual, at most, only mandated the sharing of the ‘hash value’ or the unique electronic fingerprint of the data in a seized device.

“But you’re getting something now… Till today you did not even get a hash value. If they follow the CBI Manual, you will get at least the minimum, the hash value,” Justice Dhulia addressed Ms. Ramakrishnan.

The court said the procedure under the CBI Manual would be followed till the Centre brings out new guidelines in six weeks. The Centre said meetings are underway on the framing of the guidelines. Some of the existing materials being considered include the CBI Manual itself, suggestions from the petitioners in the case and also the Karnataka Cyber Crime Investigation Manual. Mr. Raju said the guidelines would take a maximum of three months to finalise. The court listed the case on February 6.

The case would come up before a different Bench in February as Justice Kaul is retiring on December 25.

For several hearings, the government has managed a certain air of ambiguity about the new guidelines, saying it was still in the works. The Bench headed by Justice Kaul has been hearing the case for nearly two years, with no apparent headway being made.

The petitioners, Professors Ram Ramaswamy, Sujata Patel, M. Madhava Prasad, Mukul Kesavan and Deepak Malghan, have argued that personal electronic devices cannot be seized and kept in the custody of probe agencies indefinitely. At most, they could take copies of the material or content in the devices. The lawyer along with senior advocate Siddharth Agarwal said they have separately given their suggestions for the proposed guidelines.

“This is an immediate issue. Some 300 devices have been seized from around 90 journalists… How will you feel if someone comes to your house and seizes and reads your letters… This is a complete assault on journalistic freedom,” Ms. Ramakrishnan had argued.

The academicians have contended that the seizure of their personal digital devices amounted to a violation of their right to privacy and they run the risk of losing their life’s work when police carry off their computers and drives after a raid.

The case resonates issues raised by recent Delhi Police raids on journalists and activists in the NewsClick case.

“Members of a civilised democratic society have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Privacy is not the singular concern of journalists or social activists. Every citizen of India ought to be protected against violations of privacy. It is this expectation which enables us to exercise our choices, liberties, and freedom,” the Supreme Court had held in its judgment in the Pegasus case in October 2021.

The Home Ministry of Home Affairs, however in its affidavit filed in the apex court, maintained that while laptops, computers and mobiles were commonly used in contemporary society, criminals also “use these devices in the facilitation of their unlawful activities”.

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