Sixteen electronic devices have been seized in police searches at the Wire’s office and residences linked to its staff in Delhi and Mumbai, according to employees at the portal. The organisation is yet to receive the hash value of the devices. (Newslaundry later learned on November 3 that a total of 18 devices were seized.)
These devices were seized from three founding editors, the deputy editor, a reporter, the head of business, and the news portal’s accounts department.
Amit Goel, the DCP of the crime branch, on Tuesday that the hash value will be shared with the Wire “soon”. The officer has not confirmed the number of devices seized.
On why the police have not registered an FIR against Devesh Kumar, the researcher the Wire has named in its police complaint, Goel said a separate FIR against Kumar will not be filed since the cases are related, and the organisation’s complaint will be treated as a part of the investigation into BJP leader Amit Malviya’s allegations. “We are investigating it and action will be taken against the accused.”
In Delhi, searches were carried out on Monday at the portal’s office, and the homes of founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu and deputy editor Jahanvi Sen. In Mumbai, founding editor Siddarth Bhatia’s house was searched before a police unit landed at the residence of Mithun Kidambi, the Wire’s head of business, at 2.30 am and left around 5 am.
Two phones, a tablet and a laptop from Varadarajan, a phone and a tablet from Venu, a phone, a laptop and a tablet from Bhatia, a phone and a laptop each from Sen and Kidambi, and two hard disks from the accounts department’s computers and a Mac mini were among the devices seized, and also six SIM cards. A reporter’s phone and the computer he worked on at the Wire’s office were also taken away in Delhi. This list does not include any devices seized from Devesh Kumar.
In addition to these devices, the Delhi police also asked the four editors and Kidambi to remove passcodes from their phones and laptops, and to provide passwords to their official and personal email accounts. Three staffers were asked for passwords to their official email accounts while another staff member was told to give passwords to both official and personal email accounts.
“We asked the police to share the hash value of the electronic devices,” Siddharth Varadarajan Newslaundry at the time of seizure. “We have not been given the hash value. They said they will give it to us later. When we asked when our devices would be returned, they did not say anything.”
To ensure that data has not been tampered with, hashing is used as a mathematical function. It can be thought of as a digital fingerprint of an electronic record. For instance, if one runs a hashing function on “Report”, it could be hashed as R$c. Even a slightest change in the input – “rEport” instead of “Report” – would result in a change in hash. This is a standard technique used in digital forensics to ensure the integrity of digital evidence. Even the slightest activity on the storage device will lead to significant changes in the hash value.
But is providing a hash value obligatory at the time of seizure?
Not necessarily, said Harshal Arora, an independent advocate who practises in the Delhi High Court. “It depends on whether or not the investigating officer shares it with them but it is not mandatory by law.”
Ideally, hashing should occur at the time of seizure but rules around the importance of hashing have not yet made it to Indian legislation, said Divyam Nandrajog, a Delhi-based criminal lawyer.
Usually, the hash value is shared with the defendant only with the FSL report, said Arora, who is also a certified ethical hacker and forensic investigator. This happens after the chargesheet has been filed and court summons have been issued to the defendants. The prosecution is then mandated to share all documents and evidence with the defence under Section 207 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
In both Arora and Nandrajog’s experience, FSL reports can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to reach the defendants.
The National Crime Forensic Laboratory also has remote kits so that the investigating units can hash and mirror devices at the site of seizure itself. The Delhi police’s official for intelligence fusion and security operations also mentions that the NCFL has “portable forensic tools for on-site examination”.
Meanwhile, in a statement released later on Monday, the Wire its editors and staffers “fully cooperated but placed on record that all devices and hard disks were seized without mentioning any hash value”. “In spite of this cooperation, The Wire’s office at Bhagat Singh Market in Delhi was also searched and one of our lawyers physically pushed out by the officers at that site. The Crime Branch party then took away the hard disks from the two computers used by our accounts staff, again without mention of any hash value or providing us a cloned copy so that the normal financial work so central to the day-to-day functioning of a media organisation can continue uninterrupted.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has the raids “an excessive reaction” by the Indian authorities. “The Wire has voluntarily withdrawn its reportage on Meta and Amit Malviya, apologised to its readers, and initiated an internal review. We call on authorities and politicians to cease the harassment,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Frankfurt, Germany.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Digipub News India Foundation said the “arbitrary” action, based on a private complaint of defamation, “smacks of mala fide intentions”. It pointed out that the danger of these searches “being used as an excuse” to seize and duplicate confidential and sensitive data “cannot be dismissed”.
The Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists said the Wire’s apology was “quickly seized upon by the BJP as well as the Delhi police to conduct raids”.
The Network of Women in Media India expressed shock and called the searches “unjustified”. The Press Club of India said while the media has to be responsible in reporting at all times, the manner in which the police has acted on Malviya’s complaint smacks of vendetta. “Such actions have a chilling effect on the rest of the media and impact the freedom of speech as well,” it said.
The Editors’ Guild the “haste with which the police searches” were carried out was “excessive and disproportionate”, and that not providing hash value was a “serious violation of procedures and rules of investigation”. While describing the Wire’s “lapses” in reporting as condemnable, the guild added that the search and seizures were still “alarming” and “in disregard of democratic principles”.
Update at 12.00 pm, Nov 2: A statement by the Editors’ Guild on the raids has been added. Also, the name Mithun Kidambi was misspelled as Kadambi. This has been corrected.
Update at 10 am, Nov 3: Newslaundry learned a total of 18 devices were seized from the Wire, and also six SIM cards. This list does not include any devices seized from Devesh Kumar. These new details have been added to the report, along with updated details of devices seized from Varadarajan, Venu, Bhatia and the Wire office. The headline of this report has been updated to reflect the new information.