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In Afghanistan, biometrics and social media history lead to fears of retribution from Taliban

With the Taliban reportedly seizing biometric identification devices, Afghans are quickly erasing their digital footprints while a human rights group has put out a how-to guide on the same. 

With Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul falling to militant group Taliban earlier this week, many Afghans are fearing retributive action for their connections with the erstwhile Afghan government, foreign NGOs, etc., and are afraid of being tracked for the same through existing biometric-based digital identity databases and activity history on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as per multiple reports.

While some Afghans have already started taking actions to protect themselves from such retribution, a human rights group yesterday also released a guide on how they could evade biometric identification and hide or erase their social media activity.

Despite the Taliban promising that it would not take retributive action against anyone, door-to-door searches for individuals that had longstanding relationships with the US military or NGOs have already started, according to a Wired report. Previously, the militant group had killed 12 passengers on a bus after using a fingerprint scanning machine that cross-checked entries against a database of Afghan security forces. Hence, the Taliban getting their hands on biometric or online data is a matter of life and death for many.

Digital sources of danger

Devices like phones and laptops: Apart from door-to-door searches, there are concerns that the Taliban could intercept peoples’ phones and get access to other digital devices by confiscating them.

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Facebook: The Taliban has previously used Facebook data to identify individuals sharing relationships with the US military or NGOs.

Photos posted online: According to Wired, USAID, the United States’s humanitarian arm, has purportedly sent an email over the last weekend asking its Afghan partners to go through their social media accounts and websites with a fine-toothed comb to “remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable”. Further, USAID also advised partners still operating in Afghanistan to delete and wipe any personal identifying information of those they’d worked with on the ground, in case it fell into the wrong hands. Similar advice was also given by the now-closed US Embassy in Kabul, which emailed personnel to destroy “sensitive material on the property”, including paper and electronic documents.

Afghanistan’s biometric database: Experts fear that with their takeover of the country, the Taliban would now have access to various biometric databases and equipment which can allow them to not only track individuals but also flesh out their network of friends and family thus exposing ethnics groups.

According to Ramanjit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now, the Afghan government’s biometrics-based identity card called the Tazkira and telecom data can provide a “wealth of data” to track and target people.

US Military biometric devices: According to a report by The Intercept, the Taliban have gained access to U.S. military biometrics devices called HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment). These devices, The Intercept says, contains identifying biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints, as well as biographical information, and are used to access large centralised databases that contain data of Afghans who helped the US military.

How are Afghans reacting?

In a report, Reuters quotes Chima as saying that digital rights groups have already started receiving a significant number of requests from civil society groups and activists on securing their digital presence. A Wired report also elaborates on how an Afghan translator is attempting to protect his identity by clicking pictures of documents connecting him to American groups and agencies, sending them to ‘trusted contacts’, and then deleting them from his phone as the Taliban conducts door-to-door searches.

The Human Rights First guide for biometric evasion

Yesterday, activists from the US-based advocacy group Human Rights First released Pashto and Dari translations – two languages dominant in Afghanistan – of their guides on erasing and protect digital and biometric data. The guide was first issued during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and describe how individuals could protect themselves against biometric identification including through Iris and fingerprint scanners and Facial Recognition Systems.

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Some of the measures for protection listed in the guide are:

  • Looking away from Facial Recognition Systems
  • Wearing coloured lenses
  • Obscuring and altering major facial structural features through make-up and hair
  • Keeping fingertips dry or dirty

It also states that individuals can clear their social media profiles and remove their traces from search engines by:

  • Using third-party tools to delete posts
  • Emailing search engines or social networks to remove pages
  • Deleting accounts altogether

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I cover health technology for MediaNama but, really, love all things tech policy. Always willing to chat with a reader! Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

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