The Supreme Court has issued a notice to the Centre seeking its response on a plea filed by five academics seeking directions to specify guidelines to the police and investigating agencies on seizure, examination and preservation of personal digital and electronic devices and their contents, Bar and Bench reported on Monday.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and R Subhash Reddy issued the notice on March 26 and asked the Centre to reply within four weeks. After getting the Centre’s response, the court will decide whether it needs to send similar notices to states and Union Territories, Live Law reported.

The petitioners submitted that there was no procedure mandated in the law or police manual for appropriate mode of recovery of material in the electronic or digital format, which they contended was distinct from other forms.

Citing that devices of several people from the academic field have been seized by investigating agencies in the recent past, the petition claimed that it causes loss of research work.

“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, according to Bar and Bench.

The petition contended that academic freedom came under the ambit of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(A) of the Constitution. It added that the data stored by academics in electronic devices may have been collected “through extensive field work spanning decades” and thus amounted to their “livelihood”.

“If these are tampered with or damaged, the loss to research in the sciences and social sciences is considerable and often irreplaceable,” the petition argued, according to Live Law. “A lifetime’s work is life as much as livelihood.”

Apart from academic freedom, the petition also submitted that seizure of devices also deal with fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, the right against self-incrimination, and the right of protection of privileged communication.

Listing out some potential guidelines for such seizures, the petition suggested that they should be done with prior permission of a judicial magistrate as far as possible. In the case or urgent seizures, the petition submitted that reasons for not seeking permission should be provided to the owner of the device in writing.

Further, the petition said that the owner of the device should not be compelled to reveal passwords and the relevance of the material to the investigation should be clearly stated to them. The plea also sought that the guidelines mention that hard disks must be examined in the presence of the owner of the device and, ideally, the investigators must take a copy of it, and not the original.

The five academics who filed the plea are former Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Ram Ramaswamy, Savitribai Phule Pune University Professor 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.