‘We have seen on news channels people’s data being leaked. The press is on the other side, that's why the case is different,’ the court said. ‘Normally no one’s data should be leaked.’
Hearing Newslaundry’s writ petition regarding the Income Tax “survey” at our office last week, the Delhi High Court on Friday asked the IT department’s counsel to obtain instructions on providing an undertaking that the data collected during the “survey” will “not be leaked”.
An eight-official IT team landed at the Newslaundry office around midday on September 10 to conduct a “survey” which went on until after midnight. The sleuths took away the personal phone and laptop of Newslaundry CEO and co-founder Abhinandan Sekhri and the tech contractors who accompanied them copied the data from the devices. The IT team did not allow Sekhri to speak with his lawyer during the nearly 13-hour “survey”.
At the hearing on Friday, a bench of Justices JJ Manmohan and Navin Chawla pointed to leaks from law enforcement agencies that appear in the media, and observed that it was “ethically, morally and legally wrong” to leak any personal information. He directed the IT department to ensure the data taken from Newslaundry wasn’t leaked. “We have seen on news channels people’s data being leaked,” he said. “The press is on the other side, that’s why the case is different. Normally no one’s data should be leaked. This is ethically, morally, and legally wrong.”
Appearing for Newslaundry, senior advocate Siddharth Dave argued that the “survey” was “ex-facie illegal, perverse and arbitrary”.
Dave was accompanied by Nipun Katyal, the junior lawyer in the case.
Pointing out that last week’s “survey” was the “second round” of action against Newslaundry by the IT department, the lawyer said, “The first notice or summon under section 131(1A) of IT Act was served on June 29, in which the petitioner was asked to visit the office of the IT department’s deputy director. However, it’s to the utter shock and dismay of the petitioner that a second notice under the same section was served on June 30, 2021.”
The date and time of the said notice was changed without the IT authorities providing any reason, Dave said, and the sleuths entered the petitioner’s premises “way before the date mentioned in the first notice on June 29”.
Yet, the petitioners “fully cooperated” with the survey and gave the IT officials all the documents they wanted. He said Sekhri also answered all the questions posed to him, including about the company’s shareholding pattern.
On September 10, tax officials visited Newslaundry’s office again, asking the same set of questions and seeking the same set of documents. “This was a surprise notice,” Dave said. “During the survey which continued from 1 in the afternoon until 12:43 in the night, the officials also impounded and seized certain goods, such as a hard disk, Newslaundry accounts desktop, Sekhri’s MacBook and iPhone and a bunch of loose papers.”
The lawyer said he feared that the private data which is not relevant to the IT “survey” or any other legal proceedings is “not secure” in the hands of the tax authorities and is liable to be misused or leaked illegally in the public domain.
“This is beyond the scope of the survey,” Dave argued. “This breaches my right to privacy. It may contain some investigative stories that may be against the government or it may have the petitioner’s family pictures. For the purpose of the survey, you can collect books of accounts. Also, they did not give a hash or numeric value to the data which was seized.”
Dave urged the court to allow Sekhri to go to the Income Tax office and delete the personal data collected during the “survey”. “There is no alternate remedy to it,” he argued.
To this, the court noted that the petitioner had only prayed that his personal information must not be leaked and not asked for its deletion. “You have not prayed for its deletion,” Justice Manmohan said. “They must have made cloned copies of the data.”
Dave replied that it would be “appreciated” if the petitioner was also allowed to delete the personal data since it could be used to breach his privacy.
‘Merely an apprehension’
Appearing for the IT department, advocate Ajit Sharma argued that it was merely an “apprehension” that the petitioner’s data would be leaked. “The petitioner happens to be a journalist. It is just an apprehension of data being leaked. We are keeping all data in safe custody,” Sharma said.
He was cut short by the judge, who asked the lawyer to submit an undertaking under section 133 A of the IT Act.
The bench then listed the matter to be heard again on September 21 and asked for a senior IT official to be present for the purpose of undertaking.“Please call your client so that we can clear and conclude it then and there,” the court told Sharma.