Getting Around the Great Internet Blockade in Kashmir

Two Kashmiris are looking to do what Facebook has not so far – provide their fellow residents with a way to reach out to friends and family in times of crisis.

Credit: Ben Dalton, Flickr under CC BY SA 2.0

Two developers want their friends and family to be able to connect. Credit: Ben Dalton/Flickr, CC BY SA 2.0

Srinagar: Over the last three months, in the aftermath of militant Burhan Wani’s death, residents of Jammu and Kashmir have been effectively cut off from the outside world.

Two young IT professionals from Kashmir, however, are looking to do their part in easing the suffering caused by the Modi government-imposed internet blockade. Looking to take advantage of the many different ways Kashmiris try to gain some form of internet connectivity, the two developers have created an Android app to help people stay in touch during the turmoil that has rocked the region.

The app is an “initiative to bring Kashmir and its people closer [and] to share ideas on serious causes and events by responding to published content.”

“We have seen people facing many connectivity problems for the last three months, so we came up with a short-cut procedure and developed this app for people to know about each other’s whereabouts and safety online,” says Yasir Altaf  Zargar, a 23-year-old developer and freelance web security analyst based in Srinagar who developed this app along with another software engineer, 30-year-old Rayies Zargar. “We made this app to help [the] people of Kashmir who are in distress in the ongoing crisis.”

A few weeks ago, one of Yasir’s friends in Delhi was unable to receive any updates from his family due to the state-enforced mobile network ban in Kashmir.  When his family finally managed to gain brief internet connectivity with the help of a WPS-WPA cracker app, “they had also downloaded our app and my friend started receiving updates as the notification alert of our app gives a beep notification when anybody posts his update,” according to Yasir.

Worried about the safety of his family back home, Adil Bhat, a college student from Kashmir studying in New Delhi, installed the app on his smartphone soon after he came to know about its safety marking feature through his social media feed.

After clicking on “I am not there” option in the app, many of his relatives and friends were updated about his safety in the ongoing crisis. “I updated the app and I was able to get updates especially from my friend circle,” says Bhat, adding that with every new beep he came to know about the safety of his friends and relatives living in Kashmir. “Using this app, my family members too posted their updates about their safety and their beep notifications informing me about their safety were relieving since I was far from home.”

Bhat says the app is useful and works like Facebook’s safety alert. He has also dropped a message to the developers, suggesting them to add wireless cracker application as part of their app “so that people with no internet can still use this app.”

Being a vulnerable place where there is always a possibility of an uprising or natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, the developers say they felt a need for coming up with a safety feature app for smartphone users in Kashmir.  In times of crisis and during turmoil people want to know about each other’s whereabouts and safety. “During such times of crisis people are desperate to know about the welfare of their relatives and loved ones,” says Yasir. “A mobile user has to just click on what he is facing in the current situation and the app automatically posts it on his Facebook timeline,” he says, adding that through this post his friends will come to know of his or her safety.

Getting around the state ban

But if the Centre cuts off mobile internet, how do residents of Jammu and Kashmir access the app? Usually, by piggy-backing (often illegally) onto the WiFi connections of commercial establishments. The Kashmir Tap app’s developers say even when the state bans mobile internet and mobile phone connectivity, users can still use a WiFi cracker app to access the internet and use their app.  “They can then post a little content regarding their security through this safety app,” says Yasir.

The developers say the Android app they created will be useful for many Android phone users in Kashmir who are constantly using the internet these days to check the latest news updates about the ongoing situation. “This app just needs a login from Facebook and a user would use the one click option and the app will automatically access the user’s Facebook timeline and whatever he has gone through will show up on his or her timeline,” says Yasir who this year broke the web security of HackerOne, a widely known platform for ethical hackers and became part of a group of ethical hackers from across the world .

It took the duo three weeks to develop and test the safety checking app.  “We worked hard while coding for the app and we are now hopeful that this app would be helpful for people across Kashmir,” says Rayies who is also the co-founder of Netshell Software Solutions, a Srinagar-based firm which deals with mobile application development. “We are currently also working on IOS app that will help Apple users in using this app.”

In its first version, more than 300 people installed the app in the first few days, said Yasir. Although a less number of people installed the app due to the internet ban in Kashmir, he says till now the app has completed more than 1100 installs, including those which were provided directly to some users (a direct link to the app).

Facebook’s ‘double standards’

The developers say whenever any natural disaster hits any place or any major crisis takes place anywhere in the world, Facebook immediately turns their safety check feature on, letting people know about the safety of other people in their friend list. When the situation worsened in Kashmir after Wani’s killing on July 8, leading to many civilian killings and injuries, the duo was waiting for the safety feature to be turned on by Facebook for users in Kashmir.  But that didn’t happen.

“For a long time we waited for that feature, but they never turned it on for Kashmir even as killings continued and unprecedented restrictions and curfews were put in place,” says Yasir, adding that this made them to think of developing a safety feature app which could work systematically like the Facebook safety check feature and help people in Kashmir to know about each other’s safety amid the ongoing siege.

“Facebook seems to have a different policy for Kashmir and they usually don’t pay attention towards our sufferings and the networking site even removed many posts and profile ids that talked about the human rights situation here,” complained Yasir, expressing his disappointed with the popular social networking site for censoring Kashmir related posts and Kashmiri users who posted about the recent killings and siege in Kashmir expressing their outrage.

“This was the main reason for us to come up with this app,” he said. “We hope our little effort will be helpful for our people.”

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