Current track

Title

Artist

Current show

Non-Stop HMR!

06:00 19:00


The biometric, social and business data the Taliban could use to target left-behind Afghans

Written by on 27/08/2021

Concerns are mounting that the Taliban has gained access to vast amounts of personal information through former US military and Afghan government databases that could allow them to target civilians.

It would be the first time the group has acquired the personal information of Afghan civilians on such a scale.

Afghans are also racing to erase social media profiles, while international organisations scramble to delete any remaining evidence that could reveal information on the locals they have worked with over the past 20 years.

And with reports that documents identifying job applicants and Afghan workers were left outside the British embassy, the threat of identifying information falling into the wrong hands is more real than ever.

But what information could the Taliban access and what could it mean for Afghan civilians?

Fingerprint scanners, iris scanners and other biometric equipment was used to verify voters during the Afghan elections in 2019 to prevent voter fraud. Pic: Omar Sobhani/Reuters
Image: Fingerprint scanners, iris scanners and other biometric equipment was used to verify voters in 2019 elections

Biometric data

At least three digital identity systems using biometric data are known to have been operated recently in Afghanistan, according to digital human rights group Access Now.

More on Afghanistan

One of them – the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) – was initially operated by US forces as a means of collecting iris, fingerprint and facial scans of criminals and insurgents during the war.

But it was later used to log the data of Afghans assisting the US among others, with investigative reporter Annie Jacobsen reporting that the Pentagon aimed to gather biometric data on 80% of the Afghan population.

Reports indicate that HIIDE equipment – and therefore the large centralised databases of personal information they are linked to – was seized by the Taliban last week.

It’s not known how many people’s sensitive, identifying information can now be retrieved by the group as a result.

The consequences could be fatal, with reports that Taliban fighters are going house to house to find people who worked with foreign forces.

But there are also less immediate implications which might stop people hiding from the Taliban from accessing services such as healthcare and further education, according to Brian Dooley of Human Rights First, a US-based human rights group.

“Will people want to go to hospital if they know that when they come into contact with the authorities, they will have access to biometric data and there’s no hiding who you are, and what your history was?” he told Sky News.

Human Rights First have produced guides on how to erase digital history and evade misuse of biometric data.

Two government-run biometric databases were also recently operational in Afghanistan: the controversial e-Tazkira identity cards and US-supported Afghanistan Automated Biometric Identity System.

“I think it’s probably wise to assume that the Taliban have got their hands on everything that the Afghan government had a couple of weeks ago, which was a lot of information on people,” said Mr Dooley.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Afghan families in UK fear for relatives in Kabul

The 2019 Afghan election, for example, used voter verification machines with fingerprint, eye and facial recognition capabilities in a bid to curb election fraud.

Access Now also estimates that there may be several other digital identity systems using biometrics held by humanitarian organisations like the UN and World Food Programme.

Many of these international groups are now racing to do what they can to secure the data they have gathered.

Carolyn Tackett, deputy advocacy director at Access Now told Sky News:

“For humanitarian agencies like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Program (WFP) that have embedded biometrics into their service delivery, they are now facing difficult decisions about how to minimise data records and access points that put people in danger, while also trying to maintain their programmes in support of millions in Afghanistan facing displacement, food insecurity, poverty, and more.”

And while Ms Tackett does not have evidence of international organisations’ databases being compromised, she said “time is of the essence” when it comes to securing data.

“It is standard form around the world for host governments to require access to [international organisations’] databases for purposes of migration, law enforcement, and more,” she said.

“And it is likely only a matter of time before the Taliban present them with the same ultimatum.”

Social media

Since 10 August, many Afghans have scrambled to eliminate traces of their previous lives on social media for fear of retribution by the Taliban.

This includes the thousands of people who either worked directly with foreign forces as interpreters or worked in adjacent organisations in the years since US 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 over he deleted everything from his Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. He deleted his LinkedIn in the following days.

He’s concerned that his connection to a Western company may make him a target of the Taliban.

“I deleted everything belonging to my career – even my birthday wishes from expats, who were mostly UK citizens,” he said.

He told Sky News he felt “scared, shameful and disgraced” to have to do it.

“It was against the commitments I made to my friends,” he said.

It’s a feeling shared by many Afghans who have had to erase evidence of their accomplishments for fear of reprisals.

Fatimah Hossaini, a journalist and women’s activist, shared an image of herself and three other female Afghan colleagues deleting their digital history in the days following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul.

She posted: “The last days in Kabul while we, four friends, Afghan women journalists were hiding ourselves in d house. we were deleting our posts & profiles & whatever we achieved over past two decades. Taliban fighters were outside & patrolling d area. Feeling broken & traumatized.”

She has since fled the country.

But not everyone may want to – or be able to – erase their online identity.

“For some people, it’s a horrible dilemma. Their ticket out is to be able to prove that they have some relationship with American forces or British forces, for example. If they delete that, it might be more dangerous for them,” said Brian Dooley.

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn have all rolled out tools to limit who can see Afghan users’ profiles and connections.

Information held by businesses

While information online can be erased at the click of a button, sensitive documents stored in offices throughout Afghanistan are far harder to destroy.

The speed the Taliban captured Kabul means many did not have time to eliminate evidence which – in the eyes of the Taliban – incriminates them.

Smoke rises next to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Helicopters are landing at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound amid the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul).
Image: Smoke rises next to the US Embassy in Kabul on 15 August as diplomatic vehicles leave the compound. Pic: AP

Abdul was in his office on the day that the group descended on Kabul.

But on hearing the news he left, terrified.

His personal profile on the office admin files were left behind, as well as the duty roster with employees’ names on them.

“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 job applications strewn on the ground outside the British Embassy in Kabul, with names and identifying information clearly visible.

Others have raised concerns about the possibility of the Taliban accessing call logs and location records of individuals, which are stored by telecoms companies.

While the risk posed by this information falling into the wrong hands is serious, experts estimate that there is still some time for some organisations to stop the Taliban gaining access.

“They’ve got their hands full by imposing their authority on a country. I suspect that large-scale tech detection is not what they’re going to be doing on day four or five. But maybe week four or five,” said Mr Dooley.

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

Why data journalism matters to Sky News

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

Tagged as