The Delhi High Court today sought the central government's reply to a petition concerning the disclosure of certain statistical information on state-sponsored electronic surveillance under the Right to Information Act.

Justice Yashwant Varma granted six weeks to the Centre while hearing a petition challenging a Central Information Commission (CIC) order refusing to direct disclosure of the data.

Central government counsel told the Court that under the Telegraph Act, given its sensitive nature, the request for interception is deleted within six months unless it is required for any investigation and sought time from the court to file a reply.

Mr Anurag Ahluwalia, appearing for the respondents, prays that bearing in mind the questions raised in the writ petition, the respondents may be permitted to file a response on merits. Accordingly, let that reply be filed within a period of six weeks, the court recorded.

Counsel appearing for the petitioner Apar Gupta said that he was only seeking the statistical data on how many times interception was resorted to and not anything else.

The petitioner -- a lawyer, co-founder, and Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) had, in December 2018, filed six applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking details of the number of orders passed under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act granting permission for electronic surveillance during a certain period.

It was the petitioner's grievance that while deciding his second appeal under the RTI regime, the CIC proceeded upon an erroneous understanding of the law and failed to sufficiently examine the bald and belated averment of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that the data sought by him was no longer available with it as it had been destroyed.

In the petition filed through lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, the petitioner has informed that as per the CPIO's stand before the CIC, MHA did not maintain any statistical information/data related to lawful interception and monitoring but did not cite any statutory provision or even an internal policy/SOP that supports its stand that such statistical information is not maintained

No personally identifiable information was sought in the RTI queries. The Petitioner did not ask for details of specific interception orders or the identity or profile of the targeted individuals but instead sought anonymised and aggregate figures to understand the extent of state surveillance. Further, the queries relate to data that the Respondents ought to have in their possession since only the MHA is empowered to issue such orders, the petition has said.

The petition has informed that in 2019, the CPIO had disposed of the petitioner's requests for information, stating that the disclosure of information related to lawful interception/phone tapping/monitor or decrypt, is exempted under section 8(1)(a), 8(1)(g) and 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act and the same was subsequently not interfered with by the First Appellate Authority.

The petition also seeks guidelines and directions to prevent the destruction of information sought in RTI proceedings on account of the absence of rules or practices on weeding out of documents during the pendency of RTI proceedings. In December last year, the court had asked the CIC to decide the petitioner's appeal within eight weeks.

With PTI inputs