Updated August 18th, 2021 at 00:10 IST

Afghans scramble to delete digital histories, data; evade biometrics as Taliban takes over

Thousands of Afghans have now scrambled to wipe clean their digital record, biometric databases, and online history as UN warned of chilling human rights abuses

Reported by: Zaini Majeed
IMAGE: AP | Image:self

A translator in his 30s Muhibullah who worked for the US Army in Kandahar, Afghanistan fled his home ahead of the Taliban’s advancement into the southern province. He now fears being traced and targetted by the militants via his digital history, which includes the biometrics data that several of the Afghan civilians used to register themselves for voting. Afghanistan, during the US-led coalition troop deployment for 20 long years, had focussed on digitisation of the citizen’s databases, the introduction of the digital identification cards, biometrics for recognition, and other technology, which now, the Afghans fear will be used by the militia to hunt them down. 

While the Afghan translator for the US military has hidden his physical paperwork and document that tell the story of his support and assistance to the United States armed forces, his digital record now threatens his safety as the Taliban seized control of his homeland district. Muhibullah is among several interpreters and translators in Afghanistan that fear reprisal from Talibani militants for working with the United States Army, foreign correspondents have learnt. Many have burnt their physical documents to escape the repercussions of using technology provided by the American military that engaged in rigorous biometric identifying information on civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Last month, the Taliban beheaded interpreter Sohail Pardis, who was driving from his home in Afghanistan's capital Kabul to nearby Khost province. “They told him you are a spy for the Americans, you are the eyes of the Americans and you are infidel, and we will kill you and your family," his co-worker Abdulhaq Ayoubi told a US broadcasting corp in a televised remark. After shooting Pardis point-blank, the Taliban pulled out his body and beheaded him on the streets for working alongside foreign forces. 

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have now scrambled to wipe clean their digital record, biometric databases and online history as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned about “chilling” human rights violations against the academics, journalists, and activists as Taliban assumed power post the dramatic fleeing of the Afghan President from the Presidential palace. Experts have warned that the Taliban militants may dig into the technology to track the Afghan citizens loyal to the US Armed forces and attack the vulnerable groups.

"We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan," the Human Rights First group wrote on Twitter on Monday. "This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology," the group added.

In view of the rising threat to the physical safety of the Afghani US interpreters and translators, the US-based advocacy group on August 16 published detailed guidance on how to delete digital history in the Farsi language. In the manual, similar to the one issued by the US to the Hong Kong activists, US explained step by step procedures for the Afghans to evade biometrics and delete the online record of their lives. The guide also elaborated on ways Afghan citizens might bypass facial recognition using techniques such as looking down or away from the camera, wearing details that should obscure facial features, or applying heavy makeup. 

The eyes of an Afghan villager were scanned last year by an American soldier in the volatile Arghandab Valley.

"With the data, it is much more difficult to hide, obfuscate you and your family's identities, and the data can also be used to flesh out your contacts and network," Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First said in a statement.

He added, that this data could in fact be used to track connections with US troops or  former Afghan government that could either result in punishment or denial of job offers or much more “dire circumstance” or outcome. 

Taliban had claimed hacking government IT system

In 2017, the Taliban had claimed that they had hacked the government IT system that gave them access to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) biometric information system, and thereby the ability to target forces. However, the then Deputy Minister of Interior Masood Ahmad Azizi for Ashraf Ghani administration had told Kabul newspaper Salaam Times that it is “impossible to access our biometric system.” 

But the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid had claimed in a broadcast address that his fighters had access to the biometric system in different areas, including Kunduz. Reports also emerged that the Taliban organisation had previously used the biometric system to identify security personnel on the highways and had attempted to kill security personnel on the spot by tracking digital history in Kunduz Province. Meanwhile, Afghan Ministry of Defence spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri had told the newspaper that only authorised people could access and use the digital system. As the Taliban gained stronghold, it remains unclear if the biometric systems in the provinces have also fallen into their control. 

Image Credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo


Published August 18th, 2021 at 00:10 IST