Databases built in the United States, biometric data a potential tool of the Taliban

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BOSTON (AP) – In two decades, the United States and its allies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building databases for the people of Afghanistan. The nobly stated objective: To promote law and order and government accountability and to modernize a land ravaged by war.

But during the Taliban’s lightning strike, most of that digital device – including biometrics to verify identities – apparently fell into the hands of the Taliban. Built with few guarantees of data protection, it risks becoming the high-tech boots of a surveillance state. As the Taliban seize power, there are fears that it will be used for social control and to punish perceived enemies.

The constructive implementation of this data – boosting education, empowering women, fighting corruption – requires democratic stability, and these systems were not designed with the prospect of defeat.

“It’s a terrible irony,” said Frank Pasquale, surveillance technology specialist at Brooklyn Law School. “It’s a real object lesson in ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'”

Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, indications have emerged that government data may have been used in the Taliban’s efforts to identify and intimidate Afghans who worked with US forces.
People receive threatening and menacing phone calls, texts and WhatsApp messages, said Neesha Suarez, director of constituent services for Representative Seth Moulton, D-Mass., An Iraq War veteran whose office is trying to help. stranded Afghans who worked with the United States to find a way out.

A 27-year-old American entrepreneur in Kabul told The Associated Press that he and his colleagues who developed a US-funded database used to manage army and police salaries have received calls telephone summoning them to the Ministry of Defense. He is in hiding, changing locations daily, he said, asking not to be identified for his safety.

THE CONTEXT: A historical timeline of Afghanistan

In the victory, Taliban leaders say they are not interested in retaliation. Restoring international aid and unfreezing foreign assets is a priority. There is little sign of the draconian restrictions – especially on women – that they imposed when they ruled from 1996 to 2001. There is also no indication that the Afghans who worked with the Americans were systematically persecuted.

Ali Karimi, an academic from the University of Pennsylvania, is among the Afghans who are not ready to trust the Taliban. He fears the databases will give rigid fundamentalist theocrats, known during their insurgency to have ruthlessly killed enemy collaborators, “the same capacity as an average US government agency for surveillance and interception.”

The Taliban are warned the world will watch how they handle data.

All Afghans – and their international partners – have a collective obligation to ensure that sensitive government data is used only for “development purposes” and not for the purposes of policing or social control by the government. Taliban or to serve other governments in the region, said Nader Nadery, a peace advocate. negotiator and head of the civil service commission in the former government.

Uncertain at the moment is the fate of one of the most sensitive databases, the one used to pay soldiers and police.

Afghanistan’s personnel and payroll system has data on more than 700,000 members of the security forces dating back 40 years, said a senior security official in the ousted government. Its 40+ data fields include birthdates, phone numbers, names of fathers and grandfathers and could query fingerprints and iris and face scans stored in a different database at which it was integrated into, said two Afghan entrepreneurs who worked there, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Only authorized users can access this system, so if the Taliban cannot find one they can be expected to try to hack it, said the former official, who asked not to be identified. out of fear for the safety of their loved ones in Kabul. He expected the Pakistani intelligence service of the ISI, long patron of the Taliban, to provide technical assistance. US analysts expect the Chinese, Russian and Iranian secret services to offer such services as well.

Originally designed to fight wage fraud, this system was supposed to interface with a powerful database of the Ministries of Defense and the Interior, modeled on the one created by the Pentagon in 2004 to achieve “identity dominance” by collecting fingerprints, iris and face in combat zones.

But Afghanistan’s automated biometric identification database has grown from being a loyalty tool for army and police recruits to hold 8.5 million records, including on enemies of the government and the civilian population. When Kabul fell, it was being upgraded, along with a similar database in Iraq, under a $ 75 million contract signed in 2018.
US officials say it was secured before the Taliban could gain access to it.

Before the U.S. withdrawal, the entire database was erased with military-grade data erasure software, said William Graves, chief engineer in the Pentagon’s Biometrics Project Management Office. Likewise, 20 years of data collected from telecommunications and internet interceptions since 2001 by the Afghan intelligence agency has been erased, the former Afghan security official said.

Among the crucial databases that have remained are the Afghanistan Financial Management Information System, which contained extensive details on foreign contractors, and an Economics Ministry database that compiled all sources of funding for international development and aid agencies, the former security official said.

Then there’s the data – with iris scans and fingerprints for about 9 million Afghans – monitored by the National Statistics and Information Agency. A biometric scan has been required for several years to obtain a passport or driver’s license and to pass a civil service or university entrance exam.

Western humanitarian organizations led by the World Bank, one of the donors, have praised the usefulness of data for women’s empowerment, especially for registering land ownership and obtaining bank loans. The agency was working to create electronic national identity cards, known as e-Tazkira, as part of an unfinished project somewhat inspired by India’s biometric Aadhaar national identity card. .

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It is not clear whether voter registration databases – records of more than 8 million Afghans – are in the hands of the Taliban, the official said. Full prints were taken in the 2019 presidential elections, although the biometric records then used for voter anti-fraud verification were kept by the German technology provider. After the 2018 parliamentary elections, 5,000 portable biometric handhelds used for verification inexplicably disappeared.

Another database the Taliban inherits contains iris and face scans and fingerprints of 420,000 government employees – another anti-fraud measure – that Nadery oversaw as public service commissioner. It was ultimately to be merged with the e-Tazkira database, he said.

On August 3, a government website touted the digital achievements of President Ashraf Ghani, who was soon to flee into exile, claiming that biometric information on “all officials, from all corners of the country” would allow them to be linked “under an umbrella” with banks and mobile phone operators for electronic payment. UN agencies have also collected biometric data on Afghans for food distribution and refugee tracking.

The central agglomeration of this personal data is exactly what worries the 37 digital civil liberties groups that signed a letter on August 25 calling for the urgent closure and erasure, where possible, of “the tool. digital identity “of Afghanistan, among other measures. The letter says authoritarian regimes have exploited this data “to target vulnerable people” and that digitized and searchable databases magnify the risks. Disputes over the inclusion of ethnicity and religion in the e-Tazkira database – lest it put minorities in the digital spotlight, as China has done in cracking down on its Uyghur ethnicity – have delayed its creation for almost a decade.

John Woodward, a professor at Boston University and a former CIA officer who pioneered the Pentagon’s biometric collection, is worried that intelligence agencies hostile to the United States have access to the data treasure.

“The ISI (Pakistani intelligence) would be interested in knowing who worked for the Americans,” Woodward said, and China, Russia and Iran have their own programs. Their agents certainly have the technical skills to break into password protected databases.


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