An Analysis Of Virtual Private Networks: Security Implications In Context Of Kashmir Region
The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been subjected to many internet shutdowns in recent years, including the longest ever enforced in a democracy, lasting 145 days due to the repeal of Article 370,i which granted the state special status. However, instead of entirely shutting down the internet, the government frequently slows it down while also restricting the number of sites that an individual may visit.ii
The government’s main objective has been social media, which has been put to sleep throughout the lockdowns. During this period, the Virtual Private Network (VPN) comes in handy for residents, allowing them to access government-banned websites, notably social media. This has become a major security concern since the government believes that the VPN is mostly used to spread incorrect and fabricated facts, causing societal instability while also providing information to secessionist groups, compromising national security. So, in order to prevent all of this from happening, the state has prohibited the usage of VPN services, and any person discovered engaging in this behaviour will suffer legal consequences.iii
VPN (Virtual Private Network) refers to the ability to establish a secure network connection when utilising public networks. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic and conceal your identity online. This makes it more difficult for third parties to follow your internet activities and steal information. The encryption happens in real time. A VPN conceals your IP address by routing it through a specially configured distant server maintained by a VPN host. iv
This implies that if you use a VPN to access the web, the VPN server becomes the source of your data. This means that your ISP and other third parties cannot know which websites you visit or what data you transmit and receive online. A VPN acts as a filter, converting all of your data into “gibberish.v” Even if someone were to obtain your data, it would be worthless. The VPN boom in Kashmir finds its genesis in various lockdowns which puts a haul in normalcy of day-to-day activities. The exponential rise in use of VPN was seen after the abrogation of article 370 of the Indian constitution when the valley experienced its longest shutdown of internet and other mobile connectivity services.
Brief History and a case analysis
The restoration of mobile internet services began in stages, beginning with 2G and progressing to high-speed internet, taking months in all.vi However, the restriction on social media lasted a bit longer, even after the restoration of low-speed internetvii. During this time, users began to use VPN services to access social media.
The administration was concerned that the usage of social media may jeopardise regional security. Furthermore, the administration said that Pakistani operatives are stirring young on social media and radicalising youth in Kashmir, inciting violence, stone-pelting, and terror actions. In one of the statements by police officials, a 17-year-old boy was in “contact with Pakistan-based handlers” using VPN software viii. “The accused is severely radicalised, has submitted harmful information on Facebook, including propagation of ISIS doctrine,” it stated. He had also joined several WhatsApp groups that promote rumours, radicalise youth, and incite hatred against the Indian state. All of the social media sites were accessed by the accused through the use of 15 separate VPNs.
The 17-year-old was arrested under Section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which stipulates that anybody found guilty of supporting or performing an “unlawful activity” faces seven years in jail. Charges were also filed under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code for “disobedience to direction properly published by public servant.” The date of the teenager’s imprisonment is not mentioned in the police statement. According to the boy’s relatives, he was apprehended by the army and members of the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s counterinsurgency wing.
“He doesn’t have a father,” said Firdousa, the teenager’s cousin. “So, after school, he works as a labourer to take care of his mother and younger sister. That day, he was working at a neighbour’s, helping construct some shops. He was picked up from there.”
VPN services represent a security risk to the government since they allow cybercriminals to conduct uninvited activities. They, like the dark web, may circumvent security measures and stay anonymous online. Because they are widely marketed on several websites, such VPNs are also easily accessible to the general public.
Threat actors can utilise encrypted networks to evade discovery, just as ordinary users do to protect their privacy and identity. This makes it harder for law enforcement to track their movements, forcing them to employ more expensive surveillance techniques. This has been one of the administration’s primary concerns, since the administration thinks that locals use VPN services to give successionist groups with information about the ground situation and, in particular, to send crucial information to militants, allowing them to flee.
According to a police statement, in this context, the police initiated an anti- terrorism investigation against ten persons who “defied Government instructions and exploited social media platforms” using VPNs. According to local news sources, authorities are reportedly looking into at least a thousand additional VPN and social-media users for “causing disruption and uncertainty” as well as “glorifying militancy and secessionism.”ix It is the first case documented by the region’s battle-hardened police force’s newly renamed cyber division. According to Amnesty International India, those found guilty of breaching the social media ban risk up to seven years in prison.x
The pervasive influence and potential for disruption of social media began to frighten Indian authorities in 2014, when separatist militants from a generation raised in open defiance of the state began using social media without hiding their identities, spreading militant ideologies and justifying their reasons for fighting the Indian state.
The question is whether the government’s onslaught on VPNs is having the desired impact of keeping the calm.
The Internet Freedom Foundation, located in New Delhi, has called the restriction on VPNs in Kashmir illegal and the punishment excessive, and has dispatched representatives to the Indian government to challenge it. Chitralekha Zutshi, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in the United States who specialises in Kashmir issues, observed in a 2014 paper on censorship and surveillance in Kashmir that the government’s position that surveillance and censorship are justified “overlooks or denies the simple fact that there is no peace in Kashmir to be maintained.” Censorship as a counter- insurgency strategy is futile, Zutshi said, since it “virtually imprisons and destroys the lives of millions of young people”.
However, one of the key worries of the Indian government has been the use of VPNs to access social media and link with terrorist elements in Pakistan and elsewhere. In one such example, a local truck driver used a virtual private network (VPN) to connect with a Pakistan terror mastermind via “WhatsApp”. After extensive questioning, the driver acknowledged to using WhatsApp to contact with top Jaish commanders in Pakistan. The Jaish is notorious for carrying out heinous attacks on Army cantonments, security force installations, and even government institutions. Jaish has been linked to some of the most heinous suicide attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, including the February 14 Pulwama attack, in which one of the suicide bombers blew himself up in an explosive-laden car, killing 40 CRPF personnel.
Aldous Huxley, the great master of belles lettres, once remarked that the essence of a fresh perspective is in its variety, that there are many different eyes that perceive diverse sights. The same incident is described differently by various persons. There are also several fields to consider (biology, chemistry, history, etc.). Each expert observes various parts of an event, as well as different levels of reality. In the pursuit of the truth, events or phenomena should be seen through several lenses at the same time. The security concern in Kashmir in relation to use of VPN needs to be seen through multiple perspectives. In one case for a Kashmiri who relies on social media to interact with loved ones living abroad, the ban is not just arbitrary but also dehumanising. However, using the same VPN to organise a terrorist attack or assist a terrorist in escaping is also exceptionally unacceptable
When considering civil freedoms and their reconciliation with state security, a contradiction emerges: acts of terror thrive in democracies’ freedom. In a liberal democracy, freedom of association, communication, and mobility are favourable to the preparation and execution of acts of severe violence intended to destabilise or destroy State structures and achieve certain ideological goals. Numerous topics exemplify the problematic juxtaposition of civil rights with national security, in which a delicate balance may be less evident than a fervour for eroding civil freedoms in reaction to perceived emergencies.xi
Human rights are recognised as essential and universal, as inherent in the human person; but this does not exclude such rights from being curtailed under any circumstances, a pragmatic fact recognised by the distinction between derogable and non-derogable rights. Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states the rights that cannot be waived under any circumstances, regardless of the current state of public emergencyxii. The right to life, freedom from slavery, and freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman, or humiliating treatment or punishment are the most important.
“The national security and integrity of a state cannot be taken for granted while emphasising individual freedom to utilise social media through a medium that may jeopardise national security.”
Junaid Suhais is a freelance writer with a passion for storytelling and currently enrolled in a Master’s program in International Relations at Jamia Millia Islamia, following the completion of a Master’s degree in Political Science.
i https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/145-days-of-internet-shutdown-in-kashmir- no-word-on-service-restoration/articleshow/72996839.cms?from=mar
vi https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/jan/24/after-5-months-2g-mobile-internet-to-be- restored-in-Kashmir-from-Saturday–2094104.html
vii https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/15/internet-partially-restored-kashmir-social-media-ban- stays
viii https://scroll.in/article/954711/in-kashmir-a-spree-of-arrests-for-alleged-misuse-of-social-media-and-vpns#:~:text=All%20the%20social%20sites%20were,committing%20an%20%E2%80%9Cunlawful%20activity%E 2%80%9D.
ix https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3052954/indias-crackdown-vpns-kashmir-seeks-quell- cyber-insurgency
xii https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political- rights