The use of electronic media for all purposes, legal and illegal has grown exponentially over the last decade. The situation is such that all legal tussles in the world today have some electronic data element involved. In many cases, electronic evidence is the best evidence available. Hence, it becomes crucial that such evidence is verified properly to make it reliable before the Courts of law. To add to the mix, electronic evidence is naturally very volatile. This makes its authenticity highly questionable since a lot of time passes between discovery and production before the court which makes it difficult to often press certain charges against accused which would otherwise be straightforward.
This article examines the provisions relating to electronic evidence and its admissibility in Courts in India via case law. It also deals with the intricacies of electronic evidence, mandatory certification compliance and appreciation of electronic evidence.
From walking and generating location logs with Google enabled devices to speaking on the phone and generating Call Data Records, every human activity today generates an electronic record whether you know it or not. Smartphones, fitness bands, smart watches and so many other devices are living in such close proximity to our daily lives that they know much more of our secrets than anybody else. With the increasing volume of this electronic data, more and more cases are becoming reliant upon electronic evidence. In the middle ages, the strongest legal evidence was oral testimony by honorable citizens, and accountability was socially constructed and communally enforced, but it is no longer the case. It took the modern legal system years to accept paper records as primary evidence and now, electronic records pose greater challenges. At the time of conception of electronic records as evidence globally, the thought was that electronic records would be much like paper based records only because the possibility of different mediums like audio and video was not very promising. This creates an urgent need for in-depth study of electronic evidence law in India, relating to its admissibility and validity.
Electronic evidence is not inherently different from traditional evidence. It iterates 5Ws of journalism which need to be answered in order to discover and use electronic evidence: Who, What, Where, When and Why. In essence, it talks about and proves the same things that other type of evidence does. Law is not just limited to prosecution of cases. It begins at the initial stage of locating the evidence and is existent through the entire chain of custody procedures. How is an Electronic record supposed to be presented in court? Does it need some sort of verification? Are messages admissible in court as evidence to prove a fact? The courts in India have through case laws talked about the various facets of electronic evidence, its scope and some mandates. Before divulging into the details of that, the first question to be answered is the area it covers.
There are three sources of Electronic Evidence today, namely Physical, Electronic and External. Physical sources comprise of Smartphones, IOT devices, Computers and PDAs etc. Electronic include server logs, Emails and CDRs etc. while External comprise of Cloud and Social Media data. Even the most minutely significant details about data have held to be crucial information in the Courts abroad. So much so that a Court rejected a proposal to preserve electronic communications by printing them on paper. Because it could omit fundamental pieces of information, for instance information carried in metadata. All of these components boil down to one essential component, Data or electronic records as the law says.
What Does The Law Say About Electronic Evidence?
The prime statute which encompasses all types of Evidence in India is the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (hereinafter referred to as IEA,1872). After the introduction of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (hereinafter referred to as IT Act, 2000), the definition of the term ‘evidence’ was also amended to include, ‘All documents including electronic records produced for the inspection of the Court’ are also evidence under the meaning of the Act. In order to understand electronic evidence, one must, therefore, refer to the definition of the term ‘electronic records’, ‘Data, record or data generated, image or sound stored, received or sent in an electronic film or computer generated micro fiche’ is electronic record.
It can be then seen that the word ‘data’ is a very wide umbrella which can cover anything cyber. However, a precise definition is available:
Data means a representation of information, knowledge, facts, concepts or instructions which are being prepared or have been prepared in a formalised manner, and is intended to be processed, is being processed or has been processed in a computer system or computer network, and may be in any form (including computer printouts magnetic or optical storage media, punched cards, punched tapes) or stored internally in the memory of the computer
There is also a formal legal recognition to the use of electronic records under Section 4 of the IT Act, 2000 which mandates that when any law provides that some information should be in writing or in the type written or typed form then such a requirement is said to be fulfilled when it is made available in the electronic form or accessible so as to be usable for a subsequent reference. Oral admissions under Section 22A of the IEA, 1872 are relevant only for genuineness of electronic records not their content.
For the purpose of Section 79A of the IT Act which relates to providing expert opinion on ‘electronic form’ of evidence defines it as ‘any information of probative value that is either stored or transmitted in electronic form and includes computer evidence, digital audio, digital video, cell phones, digital fax machines.’
As per the Banker’s Books Evidence Act, 1891, ‘certified copy of any entry in a banker’s book shall in all legal proceedings be received as prima facie evidence of the original entry itself.’
The Federal Rules of Evidence in the United States reflect that electronic evidence may be evidence that originated in or is only presented in electronic form. Rule 1001 of the Federal Rules of Evidence specifies that “‘writings’ and ‘recordings’ consist of letters, words, or numbers, or their equivalent,” that are “set down” in “magnetic impulse” and “electronic recording,” among other forms. In other words, Rule 1001 reflects that evidence that originated in either electronic or hard copy form can be translated into an electronic form for presentation.
Application Of IT Act, 2000 Before Other Law:
In the recent past, Courts have opined and iterated the application of Generalia Specialibus Non Derogant in cases where technology is involved as well. The principle states that whenever there is a specific law on a legal point, then it must apply over a general law. It was recently opined by the Supreme Court of India (hereinafter referred to as Supreme Court) that in a case relating to sale of obscene material in the electronic form, if no case was made out under Section 67 then the remedy under Section 292 IPC will also not be available.. This might mean that in the future, the prominence of the IT Act,2000 or the Cyber Law as it is referred to, will increase. Although the word “document” under Sections 61-65 of the Evidence Act, 1872 have not been replaced with electronic documents but for all the practical purposes, it is meant to include ‘electronic records’ as well. The importance of electronic evidence is such that a previous statement, made by a person and recorded on tape, can be used not only to corroborate the evidence given by the witness in Court but also to contradict the evidence given before the Court, as well as to test the veracity of the witness and also to impeach his impartiality.
Proving Electronic Evidence in Court:
In many cases, electronic evidence being produced before the Court is not in the primary format or on the primary source so as to be proved as per Section 62 of the IEA,1872. It has to be then proved in accordance with Section 65A and 65B of the IEA,1872. Section 22A of the IEA,1872 mandates that ‘electronic records’ content cannot be proved by oral testimony, hence the certificate is mandatory. Section 65A is purely about how electronic records may be proved i.e. it is to be proved in accordance with Section 65B and the conditions as laid down in the section. Sec 65B (1) simply stipulates that any information (from the computer or device in question) which is printed on a paper, stored, recorded or copied in optical or magnetic media shall be also called a document. And this is admissible in any proceeding when a proof of the original or any fact stated of which direct evidence would be admissible, meaning that such a document can also act as an admissible evidence when it satisfies all the requisites under Section 65B. An example of this could be validating print outs of certain records from a server like CDR logs. This section states that these print outs are also called documents and can be validated under Section 65B
Now this is why, for investigators, proper evidence retention and preservation becomes highly important. Sec 65B (2) talks about the prerequisites that need to be satisfied for the evidence to be admissible. To summarize, these are:
- It should be output of time during which device was being used regularly for regular purposes by person exercising lawful control over the device.
- Such output should have been result of regular feeding of data in ordinary course of the activity.
- The device was working properly and even if it was not then it should not have affected its accuracy.
- That the information being produced is either the reproduction of or derived from such information as fed into the device in ordinary course of activities.
Certificate Under Section 65B of the IEA, 1872:
Evidence adduced in the form of photographs on a CD are not admissible in the Court if they are not filed with a Section 65B certificate. Under Section 65B (4), a certificate to identify the ‘electronic record’ has to be accompanied while giving a statement under the section; it describes the manner in which the record was produced giving the particulars of the device involved in the production of that record and deals with the conditions mentioned in Section 65B (2) and is signed by a person occupying a responsible official position in relation to the operation of the relevant device shall be evidence of any matter stated in the certificate.
There has been a lot of debate in the legal fraternity about the Section 65B certificate. It has been held that at the time of consideration of bail application, it is not at all necessary to ask prosecution to first satisfy the fulfilment of all the criteria laid down in the case of Basheer (relating to production of certificate) before taking into account Forensic Voice Examination Report as well as transcription of CD. In the Parliament attacks case, by the Supreme Court, copies of Call Detail Records (CDR) were admitted without following procedures of Sections 65A and 65B but this position has been highly criticized and even overruled in the case of Basheer. The Supreme Court held that Sec 65A and 65B create some special provisions that override the general law of documentary evidence. So now, all the conditions as listed under Sec 65B must be satisfied and a certificate be taken to make an evidence admissible. Email has also been admitted as evidence in courts and as a principle of acknowledgement under Section 13 of the IT Act, 2000 generally, the place of business is considered to be the place of acceptance, hence, constituting the contract. Acceptance of the tender, communicated by the respondents to the petitioner by e-mail, was deemed to be received by the petitioner at Varanasi or Chandauli, which are the only two places where the petitioner has his place of business. 
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Sections 22A, 45A, 59, 65A & 65B of the IEA,1872 and held that secondary data in CD/DVD/Pen Drive are not admissible without a certificate Under Section 65B (4) of the IEA,1872. It has been elucidated that electronic evidence without certificate Under Section 65B cannot be proved by oral evidence and also the opinion of the expert u/s 45A the IEA,1872 cannot be resorted to make such electronic evidence admissible. Under the US law as well, it was held that when electronically stored information is offered as evidence, the following tests need to be affirmed for it to be admissible:
- is the information relevant;
- is it authentic;
- is it hearsay;
- is it original or, if it is a duplicate, is there admissible secondary evidence to support it; and
- if its probative value survives the test of unfair prejudice.
What Does A Certificate Need To Certify?
In the landmark case of Anvar vs Basheer the Supreme Court further held,
It is further clarified that the person needs only to state in the certificate that the same is to the best of his knowledge and belief. Most importantly, such a certificate must accompany the electronic record like computer printout, Compact Disc (CD), Video Compact Disc (VCD), pen drive, etc., pertaining to which a statement is sought to be given in evidence, when the same is produced in evidence. All these safeguards are taken to ensure the source and authenticity, which are the two hallmarks pertaining to electronic record sought to be used as evidence. Electronic records being more susceptible to tampering, alteration, transposition, excision, etc. without such safeguards, the whole trial based on proof of electronic records can lead to travesty of justice.
It implies that in order to prove the document in question the source must also be authenticated. Following this conclusion, a transcription of a recorded conversation was not admitted into evidence because the original recording was not authenticated.
When Is A Section 65B Certificate Not Needed?
One opinion that was taken by the Delhi High Court  was that when the original is itself produced, a certificate under Section 65B need not be adduced. It can be owed to Section 62’s interpretation of the fact that when primary evidence is produced as it is, no supporting documents are needed to prove it. A Court is also bound to presume genuineness of an electronic record which is part of the official gazette or if it has been directed to be kept by any person and is kept by such person in proper custody. There is also a requirement to presume ‘electronic records’ to be valid when they are agreements purported to have been digitally signed and intention of the subscriber is presumed when digital signature is affixed. However, the legal position on the subject on the admissibility of the electronic evidence is still an evolving jurisprudence. In Shafhi Mohamad case,  the Supreme Court had said that a party who is not in possession of device from which the document is produced need not be required to produce certificate under Section 65B(4) of the IEA,1872 and that the applicability of requirement of certificate being procedural could be relaxed by Court wherever interest of justice so justifies. But the Apex Court very recently over ruled this position of the law and reiterated that the position in relation to production of the certificate shall be as was laid down in Anvar case. The Supreme in this case, that is, Arjun Panditrao Khotkar vs Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal and others held “the required certificate under Section 65B(4) is unnecessary if the original document itself is produced. This can be done by the owner of a laptop computer, computer tablet or even a mobile phone, by stepping into the witness box and proving that the concerned device, on which the original information is first stored, is owned and/or operated by him. In cases where the “computer” happens to be a part of a “computer system” or “computer network” and it becomes impossible to physically bring such system or network to the Court, then the only means of providing information contained in such electronic record can be in accordance with Section 65B(1), together with the requisite certificate under Section 65B(4). The last sentence in Anvar P.V. (supra) which reads as “…if an electronic record as such is used as primary evidence under Section 62 of the Evidence Act…” is thus clarified; it is to be read without the words “under Section 62 of the Evidence Act,…” With this clarification, the law stated in paragraph 24 of Anvar P.V. (supra) does not need to be revisited.”
Filing of 65B Certificate:
It can be filed at any stage of trial. The said certificate can be produced when the electronic record is to be admitted and taken on record, i.e., when the prosecution, defense or a party to the civil litigation wants the electronic record to be marked as an exhibit and read in evidence. In a recent case heard by the Bombay High Court, it was held that there is nothing in the provision that specifies the stage of production of the certificate. If at all anything, the indication therein is in fact otherwise. The provision of Section 65B is about admissibility of electronic record and not production of it and opening words of Section 65B (4) are “In any proceedings where it is desired to give statement in evidence.“ This can only be the stage at which the record is tendered in evidence for being considered its admissibility. This means that the certificate needs to be filed not at the time of production of record or filing of charge sheet but when the record is tendered into evidence. In all the cases where the police have not filed the certificate under Section 65B IEA,1872 the same can be filed by way of supplementary charge sheet under section 173(8) of the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973 (hereinafter reffered to as Cr.P.C.) and this in no way even stops the police to generate the same ‘electronic record’ as fresh and file in the Court by way of charge sheet under section 173(8) Cr.P.C. If the certificate under Section 65B which was produced is rejected because of certain non-compliance, then a fresh certificate may be produced. In a recent judgement of the Supreme Court, it was held that the objection to a procedural requirement of Section 65B certificate needs to be raised at the stage of a trial Court not in appeal and accordingly turned down the objection against admission of CDR.
Non-Acceptance Of Certificate:
It can also be the case that certain requirements of Section 65B are not fulfilled, thereby causing an impediment in the admissibility of the certificate. ATM transaction records have been held to be in question for validity just for lack of certificate under Section 65B. With respect to this, the Karnataka High Court was of the opinion that when the ATM was malfunctioning, it was incapable to produce output in the ordinary course which is a mandatory requirement under Section 65B.
Further, if in any case, there has to be a challenge against a certificate on the ground of misuse or operating failure of the system, then the challenger must prove beyond a doubt. Mere general speculations are not enough. In addition to all the statutory requirements mentioned, there are some more like the certificate must mention the manner in which the electronic record was produced along with the details of the device used for production of that record. In order to adduce new evidence, the party seeking must satisfy the court that said documents were not within the party’s knowledge or could not be produced even after due diligence. Hence, a certificate provisioning such admission is also not valid.
Appreciation Of Electronic Evidence
Email and Electronic Records as Evidence
The Hon’ble High Court of Calcutta while deciding the admissibility of Email held that an Email downloaded and printed from the Email account of the person can be proved by virtue of Section 65B read with Section 88A of the IEA, 1872. The testimony of the witness to carry out such procedure to download and print the same is sufficient to prove the electronic communication. Also, that in absence of a certificate along with an email printout, it is not admissible. The Court also observed that with respect to the contents of the message, the Court may make an assumption about the message itself from the message at the Mail Server but court shall not make any assumption as to the person by whom such message was sent.
Electronic messages sent via IM services and messengers are also electronic records within the meaning of the IEA,1872. However, without the certificate compliance, such messages are not admissible. Electronic messages being presented at the stage of bail hearing have also been held to be of relevance to either grant or refuse bail to an accused.
Tape Recorded Conversation
Relying on the test in Eobeon, tape recorded conversations should be at least adequate to form fair and reliable assessment of the conversation. Tape recorded conversations have been held to admissible provided the voice of the people can be recognized, the recording is relevant to the case and the possibility of tampering is done away with. Interestingly enough, transcriptions of tape recorded conversation without the original recording put to source and authentication test is not admissible but tape record if produced without transcription and fulfilling criteria of proper seizure is also not admissible. Video recordings of accused in custody can also be used as evidence to prove claims as per Section 27 of the IEA,1872, only relating to the discovery of certain facts. Voice identification is an important process of adducing recorded conversations into evidence, so much so that, even if a recording is sanctioned by the government, it would be inadmissible without voice identification. Identification should be conducted via a due process like mixing of samples and not telling the witness about them at all. When it appears to the court that voice identification was just conducted for the sake of it and no necessary steps were taken, the court can reject it also.
Appreciation of CCTV footage
The Hon’ble Supreme Court has held that the computer generated electronic records in evidence are admissible at a trial if proved in the manner specified by section 65B of the IEA,1872. The court pointed CCTV footage in the case was the best evidence and that non-admission of the footage at the trial stage was faulty. The Court also highlighted the importance of a certificate under section 65B as crucial to often proving the guilt of an accused The Delhi High Court has gone on to say that CCTV footage is recorded directly by way of such programming onto a hard disk directly. This evidence is primary i.e. the hard disk. As per section 60 of the IEA,1872, when the CCTV clip is played, the court becomes witness to the act although the crime was committed prior in time. However, it was subject to integrity checks based on testimonies of experts but it leads to the belief that CCTV footage produced directly on the hard disk that it is programmed to store it on by properly numbering and serializing is primary evidence and does not require Section 65B certificate. A cellphone has also been deemed to be a computer under the IT Act, 2000. Hence, in all cases, printouts or documents so produced by this computer are also ‘electronic records’.
IP Address As Evidence:
Judge Gary Brown in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of New York adjudged below:
The assumption that the person who pays for Internet access at a given location is the same individual who allegedly downloaded a single sexually explicit film is tenuous, and one that has grown more so over time. An IP address provides only the location at which one of any number of computer devices may be deployed, much like a telephone number can be used for any number of telephones.
In practice as well, proving guilt by way of IP Address and internet connection mapping has not been held to be good. IP Address can certainly be a proof of an incident origin but not as to a person who committed an act.
Banks and Bankers’ Statements:
An entry in a bankers’ book in the electronic form may be validated by means of a printout in accordance with section 2A of the Bankers’ Books Evidence Act,1891. It requires that the printout be accompanies with a certificate of validation of what the record is by the principal accountant or branch manager. The person in charge of the computer system is also required to give a certificate containing all details about the computer system which was used to create the said record along with its safeguards and process of data storage.
A case in clear violation was brought before a Court where it was held that a certificate under the Bankers’ Books Evidence Act,1891 is compulsorily required. Any deference from the statute will make admissions invalid.
CDR As Evidence:
CDRs are inadmissible without a section 65B certificate. Investigation agencies get paralyzed when an accused doesn’t use Mobile phone because most of the criminal investigation today is built around CDRs. Call Data Records do aid in preliminary investigation but cannot be taken as conclusive evidence because of certain problems like the handset being with someone else, CDR documents not being certified as per Section 65B, SIM card being clones or mobile number being spoofed etc. In Bombay Bomb Blast case, Sanjay Dutt’s CDR were admitted and the same were in Parliament Attack case but in the later, the admission was overruled in the Basheer’s case because of lack of certificate of 65B. CDRs have also been used as evidence to prove movement of people. Also, accused can be allowed to summon call record of mobile numbers of police officers just to determine their location at the time of alleged arrest.
High Court of Delhi, while dealing with the admissibility of intercepted telephone call in a CD and CDR which were without a certificate under S65B IEA,1872observed that the secondary electronic evidence without certificate under S65B is inadmissible and cannot be looked into by the Courts for any purpose whatsoever.
Dealing with Electronic Evidence:
While seizing electronic evidence, the evidence collector should always take a backup and keep it sealed because it is unlike a photograph of a crime scene. Date and time shown in the computer must be recorded because if there is any inaccuracy, it will also be reflected. Version of the operating system and any software installed should be recorded and the software used to examine the computer should also be noted. Hard disks, even if used just once and then wiped clean will not be considered as electronic devices only, they will become electronic records. While seizing of electronic evidence is a mandate in criminal matters, in civil disputes, it is not the case.
It is no doubt that the nature of electronic evidence is highly volatile which makes it important to handle the evidence and cases that have electronic evidence involved, very carefully. Standard of proof in electronic evidence should be more accurate and stringent when compared to other documentary evidence. But just the possibility of tampering is not ground to ignore electronic evidence; it must be weighed against all odds. It was in the infamous Twitter joke trial that contextual writing also became a huge source of electronic evidence. In this case, one person by the name of Mr. Chambers wrote on Twitter, “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!” This led to the criminal prosecution for his “involvement in a bomb hoax.
With the extensive use of mobile phones, data from such devices has become a crucial source for forensic evidence. The Supreme Court has held IMEI records to be a proof of conclusive nature while appreciating the fact that IMEI numbers are all different, no two can be the same. Essentially, when one makes a call, along with the phone number, the IMEI is also recorded.
An extensive study of electronic evidence and its admissibility has been done with the help of case law. The procedure has been established in the narrows but can only be understood by a thorough analysis of case law. Hence, a clear statutory position with respect to electronic evidence has not been reached in India. Even with the current level of clarity, there are certain challenges in this area. One could be the fact that there is a possibility of self-incrimination under Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India when Section 65B certificate can be given by the accused only. Another technical challenge is a situation where international chat messengers are involved and there is no possibility to get chats recovered with a 65B evidence from the owner or person in lawful control of the server. In such cases the servers do not technically have that data needed, then in a chat between two people, there is no clear distinction between whose certificate holds value.
Often, acquisition of evidence becomes a big problem for law enforcement. There are no contact details for some websites and service providers located outside the country which creates trouble for the law enforcement officers. All this has led to uncertainty in the field of electronic evidence. From the study, it can also be concluded that admissibility of electronic evidence is also based on its nature, type of case and the type of evidence being adduced.
This Article has been written by Shri Prashant Mali, Founder & President Cyber Law Consulting (Advocates & Attorneys) Mumbai.
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