You are here: Home / Internet Governance / Blog / Search and Seizure and the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age: A Comparison of US and India

Search and Seizure and the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age: A Comparison of US and India

Posted by Divij Joshi at May 31, 2014 05:00 PM |
The development of information technology has transformed the way in which individuals make everyday transactions and communicate with the world around us. These interactions and transactions are recorded and stored – constantly available for access by the individual and the company through which the service was used.

For example, the ubiquitous smartphone, above and beyond a communication device, is a device which can maintain a complete record of the communications data, photos, videos and documents, and a multitude of other deeply personal information, like application data which includes location tracking, or financial data of the user. As computers and phones increasingly allow us to keep massive amounts of personal information accessible at the touch of a button or screen (a standard smartphone can hold anything between 500 MB to 64 GB of data), the increasing reliance on computers as information-silos also exponentially increases the harms associated with the loss of control over such devices and the information they contain. This vulnerability is especially visceral in the backdrop of law enforcement and the use of coercive state  power to maintain security, juxtaposed with the individual’s right to secure their privacy.

American Law - The Fourth Amendment Protection against Unreasonable Search and Seizure

The right to conduct a search and seizure of persons or places is an essential part of investigation and the criminal justice system. The societal interest in maintaining security is an overwhelming consideration which gives the state a restricted mandate to do all things necessary to keep law and order, which includes acquiring all possible information for investigation of criminal activities, a restriction which is based on recognizing the perils of state-endorsed coercion and its implication on individual liberty. Digitally stored information, which is increasingly becoming a major site of investigative information, is thus essential in modern day investigation techniques. Further, specific crimes which have emerged out of the changing scenario, namely, crimes related to the internet, require investigation almost exclusively at the level of digital evidence. The role of courts and policy makers, then, is to balance the state’s mandate to procure information with the citizens’ right to protect it.

The scope of this mandate is what is currently being considered before the Supreme Court of the United States, which begun hearing arguments in the cases Riley v. California,[1] and United States v Wurie,[2]on the 29th of April, 2014. At issue is the question of whether the police should be allowed to search the cell phones of individuals upon arrest, without obtaining a specific warrant for such search. The cases concern instances where the accused was arrested on account of a minor infraction and a warrantless search was conducted, which included the search of cell phones in their possession. The information revealed in the phones ultimately led to the evidence of further crimes and the conviction of the accused of graver crimes. The appeal is for a suppression of the evidence so obtained, on grounds that the search violates the Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution. Although there have been a plethora of conflicting decisions by various lower courts (including the judgements in Wurie and Riley),[3] the Federal Supreme Court will be for the first time deciding upon the issue of whether cell phone searches should require a higher burden under the Fourth Amendment.

At the core of the issue are considerations of individual privacy and the right to limit the state’s interference in private matters. The fourth amendment in the Constitution of the United States expressly grants protection against unreasonable searches and seizure,[4]however, without a clear definition of what is unreasonable, it has been left to the courts to interpret situations in which the right to non-interference would trump the interests of obtaining information in every case, leading to vast and varied jurisprudence on the issue. The jurisprudence stems from the wide fourth amendment protection against unreasonable government interference, where the rule is generally that any warrantless search is unreasonable, unless covered by certain exceptions. The standard for the protection under the Fourth Amendment is a subjective standard, which is determined as per the state of the bind of the individual, rather than any objective qualifiers such as physical location; and extends to all situations where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, i.e., situations where individuals can legitimately expect privacy, which is a subjective test, not purely dependent upon the physical space being searched.[5]

Therefore, the requirement of reasonableness is generally only fulfilled when a search is conducted subsequent to obtaining a warrant from a neutral magistrate, by demonstrating probable cause to believe that evidence of any unlawful activity would be found upon such search. A warrant is, therefore, an important limitation on the search powers of the police. Further, the protection excludes roving or general searches and requires particularity of the items to be searched. The restriction derives its power from the exclusionary rule, which bars evidence obtained through unreasonable search or seizure, obtained directly or through additional warrants based upon such evidence, from being used in subsequent prosecutions. However, there have evolved several exceptions to the general rule, which includes cases where the search takes place upon the lawful arrest of an accused, a practice which is justified by the possibility of hidden weapons upon the accused or of destruction of important evidence.[6]

The appeal, if successful, would provide an exception to the rule that any search upon lawful arrest is always reasonable, by creating a caveat for the search of computer devices like smartphones. If the court does so, it would be an important recognition of the fact that evolving technologies have transmuted the concept of privacy to beyond physical space, and legal rules and standards that applied to privacy even twenty years ago, are now anachronistic in an age where individuals can record their entire lives on an iPhone. Searching a person nowadays would not only lead to the recovery of calling cards or cigarettes, but phones and computers which can be the digital record of a person’s life, something which could not have been contemplated when the laws were drafted. Cell phone and computer searches are the equivalent of searches of thousands of documents, photos and personal records, and the expectation of privacy in such cases is much higher than in regular searches. Courts have already recognized that cell phones and laptop computers are objects in which the user may have a reasonable expectation of privacy by making them analogous to a “closed container” which the police cannot search and hence coming under the protection of the Fourth Amendment.[7]

On the other hand, cell phones and computers also hold data which could be instrumental in investigating criminal activity, and with technologies like remote wipes of computer data available, such data is always at the risk of destruction if delay is occurred upon the investigation. As per the oral arguments, being heard now, the Court seems to be carving out a specific principle applicable to new technologies. The Court is likely to introduce subtleties specific to the technology involved – for example, it may seek to develop different principles for smartphones (at issue in Riley) and the more basic kind of cell-phones (at issue in Wurie), or it may recognize that only certain kinds of information may be accessed,[8]or may even evolve a rule that would allow seizure, but not a search, of the cell phone before a search warrant can be obtained.[9] Recognizing that transformational technology needs to be reflected in technology-specific legal principles is an important step in maintaining a synchronisation between law and technology and the additional recognition of a higher threshold adopted for digital evidence and privacy would go a long way in securing digital privacy in the future.

Search and Seizure in India

Indian jurisprudence on privacy is a wide departure from that in the USA. Though it is difficult to strictly compartmentalize the many facets of the right to privacy, there is no express or implicit mention of such a right in the Indian Constitution. Although courts have also recognized the importance of procedural safeguards in protecting against unreasonable governmental interference, the recognition of the intrinsic right to privacy as non-interference, which may be different from the instrumental rights that criminal procedure seeks to protect (such as misuse of police power), is sorely lacking. The general law providing for the state’s power of search and seizure of evidence is found in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Section 93 provides for the general procedure of search. Section 93 allows for a magistrate to issue a warrant for the search of any “document or thing”, including a warrant for general search of an area, where it believes it is required for the purpose of investigation. The particularity of the search warrant is not a requirement under S. 93(2), and hence a warrant may be for general or roving search of a place. Section 100, which further provides for the search of a closed place, includes certain safeguards such as the presence of witnesses and the requirement of a warrant before a police officer may be allowed ingress into the closed place. However, under S. 165 and S. 51 of the code, the requirements of a search warrant are exempted. S. 165 dispenses with the warrant requirement and provides for an officer in charge of a police station, or any other officer duly authorized by him, to conduct the search of any place as long as he has reasonable grounds to believe that such search would be for the purpose of an investigation and a belief that a search warrant cannot be obtained without undue delay. Further, the officer conducting such search must as far as possible note down the reasons for such belief in writing prior to conducting the search. Section 51 provides another express exception to the requirement of search warrants, by allowing the search of a person arrested lawfully provided that the arrested person may not or cannot be admitted to bail, and requires any such seized items to be written in a search memo. As long as these conditions are fulfilled, the police has an unqualified authority to search a person upon arrest. Therefore, where the arrestee can be admitted to bail as per the warrant, or, in cases of warrantless arrest, as per the law, the search and seizure of such person may not be regular, and the evidence so collected would be subject to greater scrutiny by the court. However, besides these minimal protections, there is no additional procedural protection of individual privacy, and the search powers of the police are extremely wide and discretionary. In fact, there is a specific absence of the exclusionary rule as a protection as well, which means that, unlike under the Fourth Amendment, the non-compliance with the procedural requirements of search would not by itself vitiate the proceedings or suppress the evidence so found, but would only amount to an irregularity which must be simply another factor considered in evaluating the evidence.[10]

The extent of the imputation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable governmental interference in the Indian constitution is also uncertain. A direct imputation of the Fourth Amendment into the Indian Constitution has been disregarded by the Supreme Court.[11]Though the allusions to the Fourth Amendment have mostly been invoked on facts where unreasonable intrusions into the homes of persons were challenged, the indirect imputation of the right to privacy into the right under Article 21 of the Constitution, invoking the right to privacy as a right to non-interference and a right to live with dignity, would suggest that the considerations for privacy under the Constitution are not merely objective, or physical, but depend on the subjective facts of the situation, i.e. its effect on the right to live with dignity (analogous to the reasonable expectation of privacy test laid down in Katz).[12] Further, the court has specifically struck down provisions for search and seizure which confer particularly wide and discretionary powers on the executive without judicial scrutiny, holding that searches must be subject to the doctrine of proportionality, and that a provision probable cause to effect any search.[13] The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable interference in private matters by the state is a useful standard to assess privacy, since it imputes a concept of privacy as an intrinsic right as well as an instrumental one, i.e. privacy as non-interference is a good in itself, notwithstanding the rights it helps achieve, like the freedom of movement or speech.

Regarding digital privacy in particular, Indian law and policy has failed to stand up to the challenges that new technologies pose to privacy and has in fact been regressive, by engaging in surveillance of communications and by allowing governmental access to digital records of online communications (including emails, website logs, etc.) without judicial scrutiny and accountability.[14] In an age of transformative technology and of privacy being placed at a much greater risk, laws which were once deemed reasonable are now completely inadequate in guaranteeing freedom and liberty as encapsulated by the right to privacy. The disparity is even more pronounced in cases of investigation of cyber-crimes which rely almost exclusively on digital evidence, such as those substantively enumerated under the Information Technology Act, but investigated under the general procedure laid down in the Code of Criminal Procedure, which is already mentioned. The procedures for investigation of cyber-crimes and the search and seizure of digital evidence require special consideration and must be brought in line with changing norms. Although S.69 and 69B lay down provisions for investigation of certain crimes,[15] which requires search upon an order by competent authority, i.e. the Secretary to the Department of IT in the Government of India, the powers of search and seizure are also present in several other rules, such as rule 3(9) of the Information Technology (Due diligence observed by intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011 which allows access to information from intermediaries by a simple written order by any agency or person who are lawfully authorised for investigative, protective, cyber security or intelligence activity; or under rule 6 of the draft Reasonable Security Practices Rules, 2011 framed under Section 43A of the Information Technology Act, where any government agency may, for the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution, and punishment of offences, obtain any personal data from an intermediate “body corporate” which stores such data. The rules framed for investigation of digital evidence, therefore, do not inspire much confidence where safeguarding privacy is concerned. In the absence of specific guidelines or amendments to the procedures of search and seizure of digital evidence, the inadequacies of applying archaic standards leads to unreasonable intrusions of individual privacy and liberties – an incongruity which requires remedy by the courts and legislature of the country.



[3]. In Wurie, the motion to supress was allowed, while in Riley it was denied. Also see US v Jacob Finley, US v Abel Flores-Lopez where the motion to suppress was denied.

[4]. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

[5]. Katz v United States, 389 U.S. 347, 352 (1967).

[6]. Stephen Saltzer, American Criminal Procedure

[7]. United States v Chan, 830 F. Supp. 531,534 (N.D. Cal. 1993).

[8]. A factor considered in US v Abel Flores-Lopez, where the court held that the search of call history in a cell phone did not constitute a sufficient infringement of privacy to require the burden of a warrant.

[9]. The decision in Smallwood v. Florida, No. SC11-1130, before the Florida Supreme Court, made such a distinction.

[10]. State Of Maharashtra v. Natwarlal Damodardas Soni, AIR 1980 SC 593; Radhakrishnan v State of UP, 1963 Supp. 1 S.C.R. 408

[11]. M.P. Sharma v Satish Chandra, AIR 1954 SC 300

[12]. Kharak Singh v State of UP, (1964) 1 SCR 332; Gobind v State of Madhya Pradesh, 1975 AIR 1378

[13]. District Registrar and Collector v. Canara Bank, AIR 2005 SC 186, which related to S.73 of the Andhra Pradesh Stamps Act which allowed ‘any person’ to enter into ‘any premises’ for the purpose of conducting a search.

[14]. S. 69 and 69B of the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008.

[15]. Procedures and Safeguards for Monitoring and collecting traffic data or information rules 2009, available at