Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Planet of the day...

Is actually not a planet at all! Astronomers have long been convinced that there is a mysterious Planet 9 circling our solar system—just beyond Neptune. But they’ve never been able to see it. And now they may know why: “[O]ur solar system may be orbited by a primordial black hole—a superdense lump of matter about the size of a tennis ball.” Imagine, right in our galactic neighbourhood.


[Trigger warning: Our lead story today focuses on sexual violence directed against very young children. Please skip ahead to our other sections if needed.]

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The biggest news story today, explained.

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The online sexual abuse of children

The New York Times has published an in-depth investigation of online child sex abuse. While the story focuses on the United States, we explain why all of us ought to be talking about this chilling internet-fuelled phenomenon—including Indians.

What ‘online child sex abuse’ is not: It is not, for starters, ‘child pornography’—even though that is a commonly used word. The reason: Porn entails varying levels of consent from its participants. Children have no ability to give consent. It also may or may not entail ‘trafficking’—which requires moving a child from one location to another. For example, kids from Bihar who pop up in Kerala or Bangalore. The internet has eliminated the need to physically transport children in order to abuse and sell them. They are often 'sold' right in their homes or neighbourhoods. 

So what are we talking about? Millions and millions of photos and videos circulating on the internet. They show actual violent sexual abuse of increasingly younger children and can be traced to a wide range of countries—from Norway to United States, India or Thailand. 

How much younger? Infants, toddlers, tweens. The victims are getting younger and the abuse is becoming ever more extreme. We won’t give examples but just the few shared in the New York Times story are sufficient to capture the horror.  

How many exactly? We only know the number of reported cases. And reporting varies widely from one country to another. But the US data offers a fairly strong indication of the extent of the abuse, and it is chilling. In 1997, there were 3000 reports of online child sex abuse. By 2014, that number had soared past 1 million. The numbers for 2018: 18.4 million reports that contained 45 million images and videos. A very important point to note: “most of the images found last year were traced to other countries.” In other words, while they were detected in the US, the numbers expose a truly global crisis. 

The other key point: These only include cases that were reported by tech companies or caught by US law enforcement agencies. The reality is that online pedophilia is incredibly hard to detect, and here’s why:

  • These pedophile rings post and trade clips and images on the ‘dark web’—a secret and hard to access part of the internet. 

  • The other method of distribution: Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp—which is the medium of choice in India, BTW. Point to note: Facebook plans to encrypt Messenger, which accounted for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million reports in 2018.

  • They fanatically guard their secrecy and membership. In many sites, members are required to share images of abuse on a regular basis—and children are often forced to hold up signs with the name of the group or other information to prove that these images are “fresh.”

  • The ‘producers’ of ‘original content’—depicting kids they have personally abused—are further sealed away in an even more private part of the site or separate messaging group. Side note: members can ‘order’ specific kinds of content, detailing age, appearance, acts etc.

How global is this? Very. Here are just a couple of examples to illustrate the scale:

  • In 2016, the Norway police busted a massive pedophilia ring and recovered “150 terabytes of data material in the form of photos, movies and chat transcripts between members of various paedophile networks.” The 51 members included a number of parents. According to the police: “One of the involved men had a pregnant girlfriend and discussed plans with another man to sexually abuse the child once it was born.”

  • A two-year investigation in Australia led to “referrals to 60 countries, 50 victims being removed from harm, an additional 100 children were identified as suffering abuse, and nine sex offenders being arrested."

  • Dutch child rights activists created a virtual 10-year old child called ‘Sweetie’ and put her “on sale”—i.e. invited customers to pay to livestream sex acts. They immediately received offers from 1,000 adults from 71 countries: “The top country of origin for the adults identified was the United States, with 254, followed by Britain with 110 and India with 103.”

I’m almost afraid to ask, but what about India? The most telling case involves an investigation by two Israeli NGOs. Earlier this year, they uncovered third-party apps which make it easy to find and join WhatsApp groups that circulate child sex abuse content. A follow-up investigation by an Indian cyber security specialist revealed lots of Indian groups which openly traded their ‘wares’—including offers such as “video chat with children at Rs 500 for 10 minutes and sexual intercourse at Rs 5,000.” What struck him was the absence of fear: “[S]everal of these groups seem to be hosted by US numbers, most descriptions are in Hindi, and a significant number of the group members are Indian, with their real names and profile photos on their WhatsApp profiles.” (The News Minute has more)

What are we doing about this? Indian child protection laws are among the most prohibitive in the world. Sharing or even keeping such content on one’s phone is a criminal offence. However, enforcement remains extremely lax and police procedures are haphazard—hence the brazenness of the WhatsApp groups above. In 2016, Indian NGO Aarambh teamed up with a UK counterpart to set up an online tip line for child abuse content. As of 2018, it had received 1000 reports.

Two takeaways to consider: One, the very encryption technologies that ensure our privacy are also abused to commit horrific crimes. Finding a balance between child protection and privacy will be key to future policymaking—more so given the failure of tech companies to self-monitor. Two, a child abuse video found in New York depicting a child in Mumbai may be hosted on a server in Moscow. It makes both prosecution—and more importantly, rescue—a nightmare. As one US police officer reminds us, “Each and every image is a depiction of a crime in progress.”

Learn more: The New York Times investigation is an absolute must read. If you can’t access it, Economic Times carried the key points. The News Minute has the most detailed report on the WhatsApp investigation in India. Mint has more on the challenges of tracking pedophilia groups on WhatsApp.

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thanking god you can still buy those super-cheap

Forever 21 tops

The wide chasm between Kashmir and Punjab: can be measured by the BJP’s policy in each state. In Punjab, the party has released eight Sikh prisoners and commuted the death sentence of Balwant Singh Rajoana—the terrorist who assassinated former Punjab CM Beant Singh back in 1995. The government clubbed this decision with its policy in Kashmir as so: “The Indian government has responded by the nullification of Article 370 to put Kashmir on the path to development, and assuaging the sentiments of the Sikh community with confidence-building measures.” Hmm, one requires rounding up mainstream politicians and teenagers who have not committed any proven crime. The other… (Hindustan Times)

Forever 21 is no longer immortal: The company has filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to shut 178 stores in the United States and pull out of Europe and Asia. The good news for Indian fans who forever heart the brand: It will be business as usual for us. The India operations are owned by franchisee Aditya Birla Fashion & Retail—which (we just discovered) operates the stores, sources the material and sells it. It just pays a fee for using the brand name and has access to some of its designs for local production. So, not quite an international brand, after all—which in this case is a good thing.

The five millennials actually changing the world: would be excellent candidates for the League of Villains. This hilarious and provocative read explains why Mark Zuckerberg, Kim Jong Un and others are “textbook exemplars” of their generation: “Name me a so-called millennial characteristic and I can name a f**kboy-despot who possesses it.” (The Cut)

Too busy to watch ‘Hustlers’? The JLo-starring movie about a group of strippers who con a bunch of Wall Street jerks is getting excellent reviews. But if you prefer the real-life version, read this fascinating story of the ‘honey trap’ gang who’ve been conning powerful netas in Bhopal. Oh, and it features a rare example of Congress-BJP cooperation plus 400 explicit videos. (Times of India)

Proud of your lawn? Well, you may want to rethink your affection for that manicured “overwatered, chemical-soaked, ecologically-sterile” stretch of grass—which one expert compares to “concrete.” (Gizmodo)

Mourning Lieutenant Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal: He was the first Indian American cop in Texas—and the first to wear a turban on the job. Dhaliwal was gunned down during what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. His death is being widely mourned in the United States—especially within his local community. (Firstpost

Forbes 400 is ‘dick measuring at its finest’: And that’s not a compliment to what is supposed to be the definitive list of the richest Americans. This is an entertaining and enlightening behind-the-scenes piece that speaks volumes about a lot of other ‘richest’ lists that infest Indian media. (Daily Beast)

Wanna pay too much for samosas? Head on over to Harrods fancy new dining hall where Vineet Bhatia—the world’s first Indian chef in the UK to score a Michelin star—has unveiled his latest eatery, Kama. Want another ‘first’? It is the first Indian restaurant in the department store’s 180-year history. Good news for proud-of-our-NRI folks: it’s received a lot of hype. The bad news: the ‘samosa chickpea chaat’ costs £14. Or you can opt for the slightly cheaper ‘Malai and nigella seed broccoli with red pepper chutney’. Also: The Times food critic (paywall) who travelled with an outraged desi author—and ordered butter chicken (?!)—isn’t all that impressed. 

Your daily quota of sunshine items: includes the following:

  • This little gem of a poem that pays tribute to a mother’s love—be sure to bookmark it for her birthday!

  • This incredibly moving clip of a father who hears his daughter’s heart beat… in another man’s body.

  • Issey Miyake dresses that literally floated on to the models as part of an exuberant runway show.

  • This lovebird that has been thrown in jail—literally—by Dutch police for being an accomplice in a crime.

  • Reese Witherspoon learning how to make a Tik Tok video from her son.

  • Aristocats meets Lizzo. Enuf said for lovers of both.

  • This delighted baby learning the difference between ‘M’ and ‘W’ from her dad—the ‘made my day’’ bar for babies is ridiculously low.

  • This canine intruder that decides to pitch in with vocals at a solo saxophone performance.

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Unexpected, thought-provoking and always worth your time

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The ‘Workplace Culture’ Edition

These two essays weigh in on the two great unforgivable sins of the present-day office: crying and ageing. One argues for a healthy break from tradition, while the other flags a tradition-breaking trend that may not be all that healthy.


Go ahead, cry it out

Bursting into tears in the middle of a meeting or an argument with the boss is a huge no-no—especially for women who are already burdened with the gender stereotype of being too “emotional” or “soft.” But this piece argues that wearing your emotions on your sleeve can be a good thing—for the employee and, as importantly, for the company.  

Read: Why crying employees can sometimes be a sign of a healthy workplace | Fast Company 

Sex, Love etc 2

The end of ‘sir/ma’am’ culture?

Indian workplaces are overly deferential of hierarchy—which long dovetailed neatly with our traditional deference to age. The bosses were grey-haired men (and sometimes women) who supervised the ‘kids’. But now a tech-driven obsession with youth is ushering in a new era of age discrimination.

Read: Indians love to respect their elders—unless they’re in the workplace | Quartz India

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