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Academics call for guidelines to govern seizure of personal devices: Report

A group of five academicians and researchers filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking guidelines to govern the seizure and examination of personal digital devices and their contents by investigation agencies in the country, Bar and Bench reported on Monday. The petitioners argued that tampering with or damaging research data can result in a considerable and irreplaceable loss.

The Supreme Court has agreed to look into this plea and directed the Central government to respond within four weeks. It also sought more information on guidelines issued by other countries on this subject matter.

The petition was submitted by Ram Ramaswamy, former JNU professor, Sujata Patel, professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Madhava Prasad, professor of Cultural Studies at the English and Foreign Languages University, Mukul Kesavan, professor of Modern Indian history at Jamia Millia Islamia, and Deepak Malghan, theoretical ecological economist.

The petitioners argued that investigative agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and National Investigation Agency (NIA) have unguided power to take possession of devices that “contain much if not all of a citizen’s personal and professional life”. In the recent past, several such devices have been seized from people from the academic field, the report 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,” the petition stated.

The plea states that currently device seizures are only substantiated with a memo merely mentioning the device has been seized and does not provide any details on what information is sought from the device given that such personal devices usually contain a trove of information, much of which would not be of concern to the investigating agency.

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Apart from the Central Board of Direct Taxes’s manual referencing this subject, no one, including the CBI,  NIA, or police have any protocol regarding this subject, the petition stated.

The petitioners further told the court that a copy of the content seized must remain with the accused in a form that cannot be modified. The petitioners cited Article 15(1)(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by India, which binds parties to protect the moral and material interest in any scientific, literary or artistic work, to support their plea.

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