Supreme Court Urges Government to Establish Clear Rules for Seizing Digital Devices During Raids

The Supreme Court has given the Central government six weeks to establish guidelines for the search and seizure of digital devices by police and law enforcement agencies. Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia expressed concern about the government's continued delay in creating these guidelines since 2021 and raised questions about the timeframe.
Newsclick raid and seizure of electronics.
Newsclick raid and seizure of electronics. File pic- PTI

New Delhi - As raids on media organizations become more common, it's usual for journalists and staff to face harassment. What stands out in these raids is the confiscation of all electronic devices. While it may be argued that it's done to collect evidence, the concern is that individuals' privacy is violated, and there's a risk that devices can be tampered with to plant false evidence. The Supreme Court appears to be supporting this concern by instructing the government to create rules for searching and seizing items.

On 14th December, the Supreme Court told the government that it has six weeks to create clear rules about when the police can search and take digital devices. The judges, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia, were concerned because the government has been taking a long time, since 2021, to make these rules. They asked why it's taking so much time to get them in place.

To handle things for the time being, the Court suggested using the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Manual. This means that when the police are looking for digital devices, they would need to provide a hash value. A hash value works like a digital fingerprint, ensuring that the devices are not messed with or altered. This is considered a temporary solution until the official rules are established.

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Because there aren't official rules yet, the Court told all government agencies to follow a temporary guide of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Manual when they search and seize digital devices. This manual says they need to provide a hash value during these searches. This is a temporary solution until proper rules are set. The government has six weeks to come up with these temporary rules, and the Court will check on the progress on 6th February.

To make sure electronic devices seized during investigations are real and haven't been tampered with, there is a part of the law called the Information Technology Act. It says we should create something called hash values for these devices – think of it like a digital fingerprint for each device. This fingerprint keeps track of any changes made to the device's contents after it's been taken.

In the apex court, there were two requests from the public, one by the Foundation for Media Professionals and the other by a group of five teachers and researchers. These requests were about creating clear rules for law enforcement and investigative agencies when they want to search and seize digital devices.

The Foundation for Media Professionals filed one of the requests, and the other came from a group of five teachers and researchers. They were concerned that the police have too much power when it comes to taking digital devices. These devices often contain a significant amount, if not all, of a person's personal and professional life information. The group wanted the court to make sure there are proper guidelines in place to prevent excessive or unchecked actions by law enforcement when it comes to seizing digital devices.

Seizing of Electronics is a Common Tactic in Media Raids

On 3rd October 2023, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police conducted a raid at the NewsClick office and the residences of its journalists, staff, consultants, and contributors in Delhi-NCR. During the raid, laptops and mobile phones were confiscated. The allegations were that the news portal had received funding from China.

During the Income Tax Department carried out surveys at both the Delhi and Mumbai offices of the BBC on 14th February 2023, employees' phones were taken, and they were told to leave.

In police searches at both the Wire's office and the homes of its staff in Delhi and Mumbai, sixteen electronic devices were confiscated, as reported by the portal's employees. A report by Newslaundry revealed that a total of 18 devices were seized. These devices belonged to three founding editors, the deputy editor, a reporter, the head of business, and the accounts department of the news portal.

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