Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story

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Vaishnavi Krishna Mohan

Article Title

Kashmiris and High-Speed Internet: A Tragic Love Story

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

January 6, 2021

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People Protesting in Kashmir

People Protesting in Kashmir | Source: Countercurrents

Over sixteen months have passed since the India’s government imposed a ban on high-speed mobile data services in Jammu and Kashmir with the exception of two districts—Ganderbal and Udhampur. This ban has been extended. On 25th December, an order was issued by J&K administration stating that the ban has been extended till Jan 8, 2021. On August 5th, 2019, the central government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A and mobile internet services were temporarily suspended due to security reasons. However, the suspension of high-speed mobile data services is not seeing an end. This has taken a toll on several businesses and students especially during the pandemic.

Iqra Ahmed—a fashion designer—took over four years to build her fashion brand online. Her clothing brand, Tuv Palav had a great recognition online through social media where Iqra had over 50,000 followers. She used Instagram to promote Kashmiri clothing. In August 2019, when the government revoked the erstwhile state’s constitutional autonomy, the valley saw a communication blackout and Iqra lost a large portion of her customer base. About 5 months later, 2G internet was partially restored, that is in Jan 2020 but social media services like Instagram were still inaccessible.

Iqra Ahmed, fashion designer from Kashmir | Source: Gyawun

In desperation, Iqra and many others like her opted to use Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

VPN allows users to hide their location while browsing the web, effectively helping in circumventing the ban. Kashmir saw a sudden surge of interest in VPN applications a few months after the ban.

According to several residents of Kashmir, the use of VPNs created a tension between civilians and the army. In several regions of South Kashmir, Army personnel allegedly checked the phones of youth for VPN apps. If any such apps were found, the youth were either thrashed or their phones were seized and they were bullied and harassed to collect it from the army camps.

“I was traveling to Shopian (district in J&K) when our cab was stopped at a checkpoint. The army man asked the guy sitting beside me how many VPNs he has on his phone. The guy replied none. ‘You better not have VPNs, otherwise, you know what we will do,’” Shefali Rafiq, a local girl, narrated her experience on Twitter. Using VPN was not a choice made for entertainment but one that was made out of desperation. Several people hadn’t seen the faces of their sons, daughters, parents, siblings and other family members living away from Jammu and Kashmir in months.

For instance, 61-year-old Shameema Banoo hadn’t seen her younger son in over 6 months. Parray, her younger son works at Riyadh, Saudhi Arabia as a hotel manager. “Last time on the evening of August 4th, I saw him through a video call. It was only after six months, on 5th of February, that my elder son brought a VPN application in his phone, by which I got connected with my beloved son,” said Shameema with tears and a smile.

However, several Kashmiris were unaware about the security issues that come with free VPNs. Hackers have breached the bank accounts of several people across the valley. In some cases, when users used VPNs for e-banking, hackers have also managed to withdraw their money. Surfshark, a UK based VPN company conducted a research on free VPNs which revealed that these VPNs can potentially jeopardize more than just user browsing history. Free VPNs build a profitable business model by selling user information to bidders which includes government agencies or authorities. In some cases, third parties were directly allowed to access user information. On the grounds of their study, Surfshark stated that free VPN service providers were culprits of user data abuse.

The people of Kashmir seemed to be unaware of these issues. People who travelled outside Kashmir, came back with seven to eight VPNs as backups as authorities were blocking and barring VPNs every day. The government also cracked down VPN users by filing an open FIR under which over hundreds of suspected users were probed and arrested several for allegedly misusing social media to promote “unlawful activities and secessionist ideology.”

On 4th March 2020, use of social media was legalized in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiris didn’t forget about those who supported them during the times of restriction. Kashmiris have developed a strange love for VPN developers past the customs of law. They showed their hospitality and gratitude to all VPN developers. Among several VPNs, LetsVPN was widely used. Kashmiris expressed their kindness by sending chai samovar, a bundle of kangris sonn sund pond (golden coin), besrakh tooker (a basket of sweets) and other gifts to the Canadian based creator of LetsVPN. These are the items that are usually sent by the bride’s family to the to-be in laws as a token of respect.

Another user shared on twitter that the experience of using VPN applications was similar to the Islam holy month of Ramzan, at first, a little hardship is endured but as the days go by, one gets used to it and after the month is over, it is missed badly and dearly.

However, Kashmiris haven’t met their happy endings yet. The ban of high speed mobile data is taking a toll on students. Several students have missed an entire online semester and were even unable to take their exams. Several students wrote to the union education minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal voicing their concerns about the apathy that universities all over India expressed toward the students of Kashmir.

Rashida Bashir, a 20-year-old sociology student from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi said that she and some of her friends were not able to join classes using 2G. “How can we appear in the online examination without any issues?” she questioned. She expressed that JMI asked the students to ensure high-speed, uninterrupted internet connectivity and also that owning a laptop was considered a necessity. She further stated that the students were asked to ensure that they have uninterrupted electricity while taking the exams. She mentioned that everybody did not own a laptop or WiFi connection and she mentioned that Handwara, North Kashmir, her place of residence experienced frequent power cuts.                                                                                  

“My classmates are privileged as the internet comes easy for them. But I have to go through a lot of issues and I’m suffering” said Masoodi. Durdana Masoodi, a student from Miranda House, Delhi said that she reached out to one of her professors for help who understood her problem and agreed to send her the lecture notes. However, that did not resolve the problem. It isn’t easy to download notes on the internet either. Anything over file size one-megabyte would take over an hour to download.

Many students, especially girls in Kashmir dropped out after 10th and 12th grade due to the pandemic which coincided with ban of high-speed internet. Students from Kashmir urged their schools and universities to scrap the autocratic decision to conduct online proctored examinations. They requested the union education minister and universities to consider their situation and sought help to resolve this issue.

It is important to deploy high level of security measures in J&K due to long standing issues with Pakistan and current impasse with China. However, the government must also consider the fact that education of students, careers of many, and livelihood of the people during this pandemic is at stake due to the ban on high speed internet. It should also understand that throttling the internet in J&K, instead of strengthening security, may prove to be more of a security threat by further alienating the people who are adversely impacted by it.

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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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