Right To Privacy Not Absolute, Investigating Agencies Have SOPs On Seizure Of Digital Devices : Centre Tells Supreme Court
The Central government of India has filed a reply to the petition filed by a group of academicians and researchers seeking directions to govern investigating agencies regarding seizure, examination and preservation of personal digital and electronic devices and their contents. While objecting to the return of personal digital and electronic devices belonging to academics, the Centre has stated that there can be no blanket orders to return seized devices which are under investigation.
The Centre has submitted that the accused may be allowed to seek cloned images of the hard drive of the devices which have been seized by the investigating agency under Section 451 of the CrPC, in appropriate cases. However, since the degree of sensitivity varies in different cases, the centre submitted that a blanket order seeking to return all devices would not be appropriate.
As per the centre, while right to privacy is implicit in the concept of individual autonomy and liberty, it is not an absolute right and can be subjected to restrictions based on compelling public interest. The Centre also stated that the vast majority of the apprehensions raised by the petitioners had been noted and can be addressed by adherence to the CBI Manual, 2020. It added that most of the agencies had the procedural SOPs on the subject matter and the CBI Manual dealt with the subject of digital evidence and designed a procedure along with safeguards which were in tune with the statutory and constitutional provisions of the country.
The Centre further said that uniform guidelines for all law enforcement agencies could only be issued after a wider consultation with all stakeholders, including the States, considering the federal structure and the entries in the 7th schedule.
As per the petitioners in the case– former Jawaharlal Nehru University (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, the entirely unguided power exercised by investigative agencies to take control of devices that contained a citizen's personal and professional life, required to be civilised by way of directives from the Supreme Court. The petition added–
"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."
Recently, the Court had imposed a cost of Rs.25,000 on the Centre for failing to file the counter-affidavit.
[Case Title: Ram Ramaswamy And Ors. v. Union of India And Ors. WP(Crl) No. 138/2021]