Agencies will follow CBI manual on seized devices, Centre tells SC | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Agencies will follow CBI manual on seized devices, Centre tells SC

Dec 15, 2023 02:58 AM IST

In order to protect the authenticity of the seized electronic devices, the Information Technology Act mandates the generation of their hash values.

The Union government on Thursday assured the Supreme Court that all federal agencies will henceforth follow the 2020 Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) manual and provide the hash value of digital devices, such as mobile phones and laptops, confiscated during investigations.

The bench of Supreme Court was hearing a batch of three connected petitions, seeking regulation of the powers of investigating agencies to search and seize digital devices. (ANI)
The bench of Supreme Court was hearing a batch of three connected petitions, seeking regulation of the powers of investigating agencies to search and seize digital devices. (ANI)

In order to protect the authenticity of the seized electronic devices, the Information Technology Act mandates the generation of their hash values. Hash value is an electronic fingerprint of a digital device, and records changes if contents in the device are tampered with after seizure.

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The Centre’s statement was recorded by a bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia as an interim arrangement while granting the government six weeks to come up with fresh guidelines on the search and seizure of digital devices.

“Additional solicitor general (ASG) SV Raju says that in the conspectus of the existing CBI manual, Karnataka manual and the Code of Criminal Procedure, number of discussions have taken place and that he will need six more weeks. He has further assured the court that for the time being the CBI manual will be followed,” the bench recorded in its order, fixing the next hearing of the matter on February 6.

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The Centre’s undertaking over sharing of the hash value by its agencies, including CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), came amid the court’s concerns that there had to be “something in the interregnum” to guide the agencies when they confiscate devices.

“We can give you time since you are saying you have been holding meetings for the new guidelines. But the problem is this – in the interregnum period, it’s all in limbo. The petition is from 2021. You have been holding meetings but when will the outcome come? In the meantime, will you at least make a statement that you will be following at least one of these manuals that are being discussed?” it asked ASG Raju, who made a statement that the cental law enforcement agencies can be bound down to the CBI manual. Raju, however, made it clear that he cannot lend a commitment in this regard for cases investigated by state police.

Chapter XVI: Cyber Crimes, CBI (Crime) Manual 2020, specifies that the agency must provide hash value of confiscated electronic devices to the owners or custodians of such devices. The manual mandates that at the time of the seizure of electronic document itself, an image of the same shall also be created and this image shall also be hashed and tally with the hashing of the seized data to ensure data integrity.

Senior counsel Nitya Ramakrishnan and Siddharth Aggarwal, appearing for a batch of petitions demanding regulation of the powers of investigating agencies to search and seize digital devices, objected to the Centre asking for more time and called it a ploy to delay the matter.

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The bench, however, responded: “Let them frame something first. For the time being, you will be getting the hash value even if they are following the CBI manual. Today, you don’t get anything. Let it at least start with something.”

Addressing Raju, the bench said that it was granting enough time to the Centre for putting its focus on the guidelines and that the new norms should not be “bare minimum” but “maximum” and comprehensive ones.

The issue of seizure of digital devices such as phones and laptops has become a flashpoint in the Bhima-Koregaon caste violence case with the accused alleging that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) planted evidence on the laptop of Rona Wilson. Wilson, from whose laptop at least 10 incriminating letters were allegedly recovered, had in 2021 moved the Bombay high court to get the proceedings quashed on the basis of a report by a US-based digital forensics firm. This firm claimed that an attacker used malware to infiltrate Wilson’s laptop. The NIA, however, dismissed the report as a “distortion of facts”

Currently incarcerated for his alleged role in the now-scrapped Delhi excise policy scam case, Delhi’s former deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia also claimed that the CBI had deliberately not shared the hash value of a computer seized from his office because the agency wanted to “implant files in the CPU”.

Read Here: Supreme Court seeks Centre’s view on ED, CBI chief extensions

The bench was hearing a batch of three connected petitions, seeking regulation of the powers of investigating agencies to search and seize digital devices. The first writ petition was filed by former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Ram Ramaswamy and four other academicians in 2021, demanding guidelines be framed for investigation agencies regarding search, seizure, examination and preservation of digital and electronic devices and their contents. The other petitions have been filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) and Amazon Seller Services Private Ltd.

On November 7, the bench had commented that unchecked powers with the investigating agencies to search and seize digital devices during probe is not only “very very dangerous” but also impact privacy of individuals.

“There must be some guidelines. It is a matter of privacy,” it told Raju on November 7.

Responding to Ramaswamy’s petition through an affidavit in November 2022, the Centre asserted that search and seizure of digital devices during probe “further legitimate state interest” and cannot be said to be violating privacy rights. It added that common guidelines on preservation and handling of information stored on digital devices confiscated by investigating agencies across the country will require a consultation involving all states.

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