Karnataka HC refuses to quash charges against former intern of IIS allegedly involved in data theft of Light Combat Aircraft and selling it on Dark Web

karnataka high court

Karnataka High Court: In the instant matter the petitioner who was allegedly involved in data theft of Light Combat Aircraft project while he was working as an intern with the Indian Institute of Science (IIS) and selling the stolen data on Dark Web, challenged the registration of crime under Sections 66, 66(F), 84(C) of the Information Technology Act, 2008 and Section 380 of Penal Code, 1860. Given the sensitive nature of the case and the fact that the investigation is still ongoing, the bench of M. Nagaprasanna, J.*, dismissed the petition stating that the petitioner has leaked into Dark Web highly sensitive data which would have the effect of destabilizing defence of the nation. Any person indulging in any crime that would destabilize nation’s defence of any kind, even to its triviality, cannot be countenanced. “The petitioner wanting to project himself to be innocent, in the teeth of the aforesaid facts, can only be a figment of his imagination”.

The Court further pointed out that Dark web is a sophisticated anonymous internet network used by both criminals and other individuals for manifold reasons, necessity to regulate the usage of dark web has become the need of the hour, as it provides anonymity, as the geo location is hidden. Such usage of dark web for defence secrets to be uploaded has devastating effect on national security. The occurrence of massive data theft and auction on the dark web has been a worrisome concern to all the nations. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate into the root of the data thieving, uploading it on the dark web, for illegal financial gains and bring to book, persons involved in such acts of uploading sensitive data of defence of the nation, on to the dark web and deal them with iron hands.

Background: The petitioner is a qualified degree holder in the discipline of Bachelor of Technology with specialization in Aerospace Engineering from Manipal University and was appointed as an intern in a project in the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The project was “Drag Reduction by heat transfer through convection” in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science.

The petitioner also works as a Research Assistant at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. After working as an intern, the petitioner applied for the post of Senior Technical Officer Grade-III owing to a notification issued by the National Aero Space Laboratory. The interview was slated to be held on 23-03-2022. Four days prior to the date of interview, the petitioner was made aware of a crime that had been registered long ago on 17-09-2021.

Contentions: Counsel for the petitioner contended gross delay and that he has done nothing that would bring him into the web of crime. It was further argued that permitting further investigation against a bright student like the petitioner would become an abuse of the process of law. The petitioner thus sought quashment of registration of the crime against him.

Per contra, the respondents vehemently opposed the petitioner prayer for quashment contending that the petitioner was an intern in the Indian Institute of Science when certain projects were sanctioned to be executed by the Aeronautical Development Agency, Ministry of Defence, Government of India. He was allowed to work as an intern in the preparation of code for the Light Combat Aircrafts used during war time. However, the petitioner’s modus operandi was to get to know the entire source code and publish the same for sale on the Dark Web.

The respondents further submitted that initially it was not known as to who was involved in the entire process. It took about 18 months for the Department to know that the petitioner was involved in all these activities. Therefore, it was argued that the petitioner has compromised the security of the nation.

Court’s Assessment: The Court noted that in 2012 “Experimental Investigation of Lateral Instability Characteristics of AMCA at Moderate to High Angles of Attack-Phase-I” was sanctioned and was sought to be executed in the Department of Aero Space Engineering, Indian Institute of Science and that this was an ongoing project. Another project was allotted to the Indian Institute of Science on 17-11-2015 viz., “Design and Fabrication and Measurement of Dynamic Derivatives on 1:20 scale AMCA model using Forced Oscillating rig and Rotary Derivative Rig”. This project was undertaken by the Indian Institute of Science and completed on 10-01-2017. It is during the said period the petitioner was working as an intern in the very Department.

The Court further noted that somewhere in 2021, it came to the notice of the Ministry of Defence that there has been some foul play by persons working in the Aeronautical Development Agency and have leaked the data related to the organization. It was then the Aeronautical Development Agency complained to the Police in the Cyber Crime Division on 17-09-2021. Investigation is commenced by the jurisdictional Police of the Cyber Crime Division which leads to the filing of a remand Application seeking remand of the petitioner to police custody.

The Court further noted that in the investigation it was prima facie found that the petitioner was involved in the acts. Two of his laptops, two external hard discs, one pen drive and the mobile of the petitioner were seized on 19-03-2022 and custodial interrogation was sought by the Police. It is then, the petitioner lost his chance of interview of Senior Technical Officer-1 Grade-III in the National Aero Space Laboratories. The Court also noted that the investigation in the matter is still going on.

Vis-à-vis the contention of delay in registering the crime as raised by the petitioner, the Court found the same to be unacceptable as the investigation in the instant case in the nature where it cannot be concluded overnight, as they involve several intricate facts.

The Court pointed out that if on the plea of the petitioner the present proceedings are quashed against him, it would amount to putting a premium on the activities of the petitioner who has acted in a manner that would compromise security of the nation, as the petitioner has leaked the data of the Light Combat Aircraft under the Tejas programme development by the Aeronautical Development Agency. “The data that is leaked is of Aeronautical Technology which is used for Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, all of which form defence documents of the Ministry of Defence”.

The Court pointed out that petitioner has leaked defence secrets with regard to installation of characteristics of moderate to high angles of attack concerning aircrafts, its design, fabrication, measurement and dynamic derivates, into the dark web, all for enriching himself.

Given the seriousness of the case, the Court stated that investigation on such cases should be conducted on war-footing and complete it in a time frame, so that illegality would not perpetuate. More than 2 years have passed by, the matter is still at the stage of investigation. Though in certain cases time to investigate on deeper issues would be necessary, but bearing that in mind as well, it should be the endeavour of the prosecution to conclude the investigation as expeditiously as possible and file their final report. The Court was of the opinion that four months’ time would be adequate.

With the afore-stated assessment, the Court dismissed the petition for quashment of registered crimes.

[Siva Rama Krishna v. Sasi Narkis Babu V., 2023 SCC OnLine Kar 49, decided on 28-07-2023]

*Order by Justice M. Nagaprasanna

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For the Petitioner- Girish B. Baladare;

For the Respondents- H. Shanthi Bhushan, Deputy Solicitor General of India appearing for R1 and Mahesh Shetty, High Court Government Pleader for R2.

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