Afghans worry tech-savvy Taliban will use data for reprisals

Sensitive information such as biometric data gathered by the US military risks falling into the hands of Afghanistan’s new regime

A tech-savvy Taliban regime has seized power in Afghanistan.

The militant group, which largely eschewed the use of mobile phones and dial-up internet when they were last in power at the turn of the century, has returned two decades later with a huge following on Twitter, claims to legitimacy on Facebook and Instagram, and prolific messaging capacity on Telegram and WhatsApp.

Scratch below the surface of this public presence and a deeper existential threat emerges, one that connects everyone participating in modern-day society − data privacy.

As sensitive information risks falling into the hands of Afghanistan’s new regime, privacy advocates − and innocent Afghans − are crying foul, fearing reprisals by the Taliban.

On August 23, as the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghan photographer Fatimah Hossaini wrote on Twitter that she and three friends were deleting social media posts and profiles, the public evidence online of two decades of output as working women.

Beyond internet identities, there is the issue of biometric data: retina scans, fingerprints and images of faces that make up databases maintained by the Afghan government and the US coalition, as well as by humanitarian agencies such as the UN.

A report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that residents in Kabul are worried that such databases could be used to track them.

“Not enough care is taken by multilateral and development aid agencies to understand the local context − who can use the data and if it can be used to perpetuate inequities and discrimination,” Raman Chima of digital rights group Access Now told Reuters.

The US began using biometric data gathering in Afghanistan with the aim of separating out insurgents from civilians “without prior assessment of its human rights impact and without the safeguards necessary to prevent its abuse”, Privacy International said in May.

Of particular interest to the US and coalition forces was who was behind the making of roadside bombs, a major cause of casualties among troops.

Using iris scanners, digital fingerprinting and cameras, the US military gathered “unique, immutable data to connect individuals, like bomb makers, with specific incidents”, according to the MIT Tech Review.

This raw data typically went from the device that gathered it directly to a secure US Department of Defence database.

But “actionable” data, unique identifiers of people the US were “on the lookout for”, was downloaded back on to local, non-classified devices, according to the Tech Review.

Still, it is incumbent on aid agencies and government authorities to conceal or curtail access to these databases immediately, said Mr Chima.

With more than 100,000 Afghans evacuated from Kabul in the final days of the US presence, those who missed the opportunity to flee have received messages from the Taliban, reassuring them they would not seek retribution against anyone who worked for international forces.

But recent actions, including potential reprisal killings and the identification of information at their fingertips, has many worried.

“When it was first introduced, I was happy about this new biometric system,” Abdul Habib, 32, a former ANA soldier, told the Tech Review.

“I thought it was something useful and the army would benefit from it, but now looking back, I don’t think it was a good time to introduce something like that. If they are making such a system, they should also have thought of securing it.”

Mr Habib said he does not feel safe.

“A colleague was told that ‘we will remove your biometrics from the system’, but as far as I know, once it is saved, then they can't remove it.”

Updated: August 31st 2021, 10:19 AM