Saturday, January 30, 2021

Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

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Internet Shutdowns in India: From Kashmir to Haryana

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 30, 2021

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Representative Image no Internet

Representative Image no Internet

India has one of the world’s largest internet user base and also has the maximum number of internet shutdowns. In 2018, India recorded 134 shutdowns which is the highest the country has seen yet. The article delineates the implications of Internet shut-down—while looking at specific cases of Kashmir, CAA-NRC, and Farm Bill Protests—and the legal procedures associated with the same.

The internet shutdown imposed in Kashmir on 4th August 2019, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated by the Parliament of India recorded the longest shutdown in India.  In the initial days, landline and mobile services were restricted as well. While the ban on landline and mobiles was lifted soon, 2G services were restored for “verified users” on 25th January 2020. Only whitelisted websites could be accessed and social media remained prohibited. A new order was passed on 4th of March 2020, by the administration of J&K, according to which the whitelist was removed but internet could only be accessed using 2G on verified SIM's. As Kashmir is still languishing without high-speed internet, at least 7 million have been affected due to the shutdown.

Anti CAA-NRC Protests in Lucknow | Source: Youtube

In December, 2019, during the notable protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the authorities in the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura severed internet connection as they supposedly cited a threat of violence and false rumors. Parts of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh were also under a digital lockdown. Internet shutdowns come with a great cost. Every time the central or state government decides to cut the internet, a large number of students, businesses, travelers, online journalists and influencers are affected resulting in a huge monetary loss. According to a report by TopVPN, India has lost nearly $2.7 billion due to all the 83 internet shutdowns in 2020 alone. This loss is greater than the combined loss of the next 10 countries in the list. The report also revealed that India also stayed offline for longer than any other country, at 8,927 hours last year. The largest contributor to this figure is the 213-day shutdown in Kashmir.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce reported that the cumulative loss due to the internet shutdown and restriction in the region was $5.3 billion. The authorities say that these shutdowns are simply to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation which they believe moves faster in social media like Facebook and messaging apps like WhatsApp. However, the internet shutdowns are usually enforced after a piece of misinformation has been spread widely. In 2018, 33 of the shutdowns were justified by the government claiming that they wanted to curb dis/misinformation. The problem is that, when you cut people off from being able to access information, the only access they have is to previous misinformation. In fact, cutting off the internet can turn a previously predictable situation into a highly volatile one. A study conducted by Stanford suggested that mass mobilization in India can occur even in the absence of social media and digital platforms. Another report published by Stanford stated, “Rumours and disinformation continue to spread with or without access to digital communication networks, whose primary role is that of accelerators of information diffusion.” In addition to this, the study found that internet shutdowns force protesters to substitute non-violent tactics for violent ones which are less reliant on effective communication and coordination. In April 2019, Sri Lankan government shutdown all social media platforms as a result of the Easter Suicide Bombings. The IFCN (International Fact-Checking Network) reported that fake news was rampant despite the shutdown. IFCN also noticed an increase in false reports on Facebook from that area. However, the above mentioned facts did not have the potential to stop India from once again disregarding the negative implications of Internet shut-down. India continues to be indifferent.

Protesting farmers at Singhu Border | Source: Harvinder Chandigarh via Wikimedia

The ongoing farmers’ protest in India against the three farm bills (now acts) passed in the parliament turned violent on 26th of January. A group of the protesting farmers who were on a tractor rally, deviated from their route and entered the Red Fort. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs temporarily suspended internet in Singhu border, Ghazipur border, Tikri border, Mukarba Chowk and Nangloi for 24 hours. On 29th of January, the State government of Haryana ordered telecom operators to shut down all mobile internet services, all SMS services, and all dongle services in 17 of the 22 districts of the state until 5 pm on January 30, 2020.

The shutdown was based on the grounds of preventing protestors from mobilising through social media and to constrain the plague of disinformation, which was spread due to the tensions at farmer camps between unidentified miscreants, farmers and later the police. But there was a lack of media coverage of the police violence while they highlighted the protestors’ response to it, essentially disseminating biased disinformation which they ‘intended’ to curb with an internet shutdown.

The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 permits the government to block internet access in case of a public emergency. After 2017, Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules was deployed in cases of internet shutdowns. The Rule 2(1) describes the protocol and powers for the ‘competent authority’ to issue a direction for the suspension of Internet.  The ‘competent authority’ here refers to the Home Secretary of the Union government or the State government. If obtaining prior directions from either of these authorities is not feasible, the order may be issued by an officer, not below the rank of a Joint Secretary to the Government of India. This officer should be duly authorized by the competent authority to issue suspension order and must receive confirmation from the competent authority within 24 hours of issuing such order. In January 2020, the Supreme Court directed that in addition to the Telecom suspension rules, all internet shutdowns must be made public and the orders must be a committee must review all internet shutdown orders once every seven working days to ensure if it is in accordance with the Telecom suspension rules. In November 2020, a new rule was introduced stating that a single order cannot authorize a shutdown for a period exceeding 15 days. Despite several regulations, the Internet Freedom foundation found out that there is low compliance by state governments. Even in 2019, in multiple cities, including the national capital, the suspension orders were issued by the State Police. The New York times reported there were instances where local authorities of India ordered the shutdown with just a few phone calls to the local service providers.

In addition to repression of dissent, telecom shutdowns also have an impact on healthcare services, doctors and ambulances especially in the cases of violence when they certainly have a harder time communicating with people on the ground hence creating a vacuum of information.

Arbitrarily shutting down the internet is a fundamental right violation. The frequencies of internet shutdowns in India are highly alarming. Besides, it is ironic that in 2020, the government announced its plan to bring high-speed fibre-optic based broadband to all Indian villages in the next three years. While it is most certainly beneficial to those living in these villages and to those wanting to spread propaganda, all the effort would be insignificant if the nation continues to shut down the internet at this rate of recurrence.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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