India cracks down on use of VPNs in occupied Kashmir to get around social media ban

Published February 19, 2020
Police said many VPN users were trying to stir trouble in occupied Kashmir and were liable to face action. — AFP/File
Police said many VPN users were trying to stir trouble in occupied Kashmir and were liable to face action. — AFP/File

Authorities in occupied Kashmir are cracking down on virtual private network (VPN) applications used to circumvent a months-long ban on social media, police said, as part of a broader effort to quell unrest over the withdrawal of the region’s autonomy.

Social networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are still blocked, even after the government restored limited mobile data service and the internet in occupied Kashmir, so residents use VPNs or proxy servers to bypass the restrictions.

Police said many VPN users were trying to stir trouble in occupied Kashmir and were liable to face action.

“We have identified 100 social media users and are in the process of identifying more users for misuse of social media, for disseminating fake and false secessionist, anti-India propaganda,” said the cyber police chief Tahir Ashraf.

Police have filed a case against social media users who are using proxy servers to access messaging networks and stir up anti-India propaganda, a spokesman said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked special privileges from occupied Kashmir in August.

It detained hundreds of people and imposed a communications blackout, saying the actions were needed to prevent people from organising street protests.

Through VPNs, users can route the data connection of a smartphone or a laptop through a private server instead of the local internet service provider’s network. That allows the user to access sites that are locally blocked.

Adil Altaf, 37, a businessman in Srinagar, said he had downloaded a dozen VPN apps on his cellphone.

“They go on blocking, I will go on shifting to other VPNs,” he said.

Saleema Jan, who lives in occupied Kashmir, said she had used a proxy server for a video chat with to her son, who is in college in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh.

Modi’s government has frequently curbed access to the internet in occupied Kashmir and other parts of the country, including briefly in the capital, New Delhi, amid growing protests against a new citizenship law.

As of 2018, India led the world in internet shutdowns, according to a report by internet advocacy group Access Now, accounting for 67 per cent of the total recorded worldwide.

A Jammu and Kashmir telecom official said teams of software engineers were working to disrupt VPNs use in occupied Kashmir.

“It is an ongoing process. We block some and they come up with more. It is like a cat-and-mouse game,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

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