There are growing concerns that the Taliban have gained access to vast amounts of personal information through old US military and Afghan government databases, which could allow them to target civilians.
It would be the first time that the group has acquired the personal information of Afghan civilians on such a scale.
Afghans are also rushing to clear social media profiles, as international organizations scramble to remove any remaining evidence that could reveal information about locals they have worked with over the past 20 years.
And with reports that documents identifying job seekers and Afghan workers were left outside the British embassy, the threat of credentials falling into the wrong hands is more real than ever.
But what information could the Taliban access and what could that mean for Afghan civilians?
At least three digital identity systems using biometric data are known to have been used recently in Afghanistan, according to digital human rights group Access Now.
One of them – the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) – was initially used by US forces as a means to collect the iris, fingerprints, and facial scans of criminals and insurgents during the war.
But it was then used to record data from Afghans helping the United States among others, with investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen reporting that the Pentagon was aiming to collect biometric data on 80% of the Afghan population.
In FIRST PLATOON, I chronicle the Pentagon’s Panopticon-type biometric program.
One designed to capture the BIOMETRIC data of 80% of all Afghan citizens.
This is what the capture of DNA from a random citizen looks like (no probable cause, not suspected of a crime) 👇. pic.twitter.com/vYmW5maEOO
– Annie Jacobsen (@AnnieJacobsen) August 24, 2021
Reports indicate that HIIDE equipment – and therefore the large centralized databases of personal information to which it is linked – was seized by the Taliban last week.
It is not known how much sensitive credentials can now be retrieved by the group.
The consequences could be fatal, with reports that Taliban fighters are going house to house to find people who have worked with foreign forces.
But there are also less immediate implications that could prevent people in hiding from the Taliban from accessing services such as health care and continuing education, according to Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, an advocacy group. humans based in the United States.
“Will people want to go to the hospital if they know that when they come into contact with the authorities they will have access to biometric data and that there is no way to hide who you are and what? been your story? ” he told Sky News.
Human Rights First has produced guides on how to erase digital history and avoid misuse of biometric data.
Two government-run biometric databases were also recently operational in Afghanistan: the controversial e-Tazkira ID cards and the US-backed Afghan automated biometric identity system.
“I think it’s probably safe to assume that the Taliban got their hands on everything the Afghan government had a few weeks ago, which was a lot of information about people,” Dooley said.
The 2019 Afghan elections, for example, used voter verification machines with fingerprint, eye and face recognition capabilities in an effort to combat voter fraud.
Access Now also believes that there may be several other digital identity systems using biometrics owned by humanitarian organizations like the UN and the World Food Program.
Many of these international groups are now rushing to do what they can to secure the data they have collected.
Carolyn Tackett, deputy director of advocacy at Access Now, told Sky News:
“For humanitarian agencies like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Program (WFP) that have integrated biometrics into their service delivery, they now face difficult decisions on how to minimize records. data and access points that put people at risk, while trying to maintain their programs to support millions of people in Afghanistan facing displacement, food insecurity, poverty and more. “
And although Ms Tackett has no evidence that databases of international organizations are compromised, she said “time is running out” when it comes to securing data.
“It is a standard form around the world for host governments to require access to [international organisations’] databases for migration, law enforcement, and more, ”she said.
“And it’s probably only a matter of time before the Taliban give them the same ultimatum.”
Since August 10, many Afghans have tried to eliminate traces of their past lives on social media for fear of retaliation from the Taliban.
This includes the thousands of people who worked directly with foreign forces as interpreters or worked in adjacent organizations in the years after U.S. forces entered the country.
Abdul worked as a contractor for a Western security firm. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
He told Sky News that on the first day the Taliban took power, he deleted everything from his Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram accounts. He deleted his LinkedIn in the following days.
He fears his connection to a Western company will make him a target of the Taliban.
“I deleted everything that belonged to my career – even my expat birthday wishes, who were mostly British citizens,” he said.
He told Sky News he felt “scared, ashamed and dishonored” to have to do it.
“It was against the commitments I had made to my friends,” he said.
This is a sentiment shared by many Afghans who have had to erase the evidence of their achievements for fear of reprisals.
Fatimah Hossaini, journalist and feminist activist, shared an image of herself and three other Afghan colleagues deleting their digital histories in the days following the capture of Kabul by the Taliban.
_The last few days in Kabul when we, four friends, Afghan women journalists, were hiding in a house. we were removing our posts and profiles and everything that we had accomplished over the past two decades. Taliban fighters were outside patrolling the area.
Feeling broken and traumatized.
August 18- pic.twitter.com/V2LqOsNsZe
– Fatimah Hossaini (@HossainiFatimah) 23 Aug 2021
She posted: “The last few days in Kabul, while we four friends, Afghan women journalists, were hiding in the house. We were deleting our posts and profiles and everything we had accomplished over the past two decades. Feeling broken and traumatized. “
She has since fled the country.
But not everyone will want or be able to erase their identity online.
“For some people it’s a horrible dilemma. Their exit ticket is to be able to prove that they have connections with American forces or British forces, for example. If they remove that, it could be more dangerous for them. them, ”said Brian Dooley.
Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have all deployed tools to limit who can see the profiles and connections of Afghan users.
Information held by companies
While online information can be erased with the click of a button, sensitive documents stored in offices across Afghanistan are much more difficult to destroy.
The speed at which the Taliban captured Kabul means that many have not had time to eliminate the evidence that – in the eyes of the Taliban – incriminates them.
Abdul was in his office the day the group descended on Kabul.
But upon hearing the news, he left, terrified.
His personal profile on the administrative files of the office was left, as well as the service list with the names of the employees on it.
“Every moment I think about it and what happens to me if they find me. It’s hard to imagine how cruel they are,” he said.
It follows the discovery by a journalist of CVs and applications scattered on the floor in front of the British Embassy in Kabul, with names and identifying information clearly visible.
Others have expressed concerns about the Taliban’s ability to access call logs and location records of individuals, which are stored by telecommunications companies.
While the risk of this information falling into the wrong hands is serious, experts believe there is still time for some organizations to prevent the Taliban from accessing it.
“They have their hands full in imposing their authority on a country. I suspect large-scale technological detection is not what they’re going to do on the fourth or fifth day. But maybe the fourth or the fifth week. “said Mr. Dooley.
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