BOSTON – For two decades, the United States and its allies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building databases for the people of Afghanistan. The nobly declared 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.
Using this data constructively to boost education, empower women, fight corruption requires democratic stability, and these systems were not designed with the prospect of defeat.
It’s a terrible irony, said Frank Pasquale, a 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 Taliban efforts to identify and intimidate Afghans who worked with US forces.
People are getting threatening and threatening phone calls, texts and WhatsApp messages, said Neesha Suarez, director of constituent services for Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, 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.
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 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 that the databases will give rigid fundamentalist theocrats, known during their insurgency to have ruthlessly killed enemy collaborators, “the same ability 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 an 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 Taliban or for serve other governments in the region, said Nader Nadery, peace negotiator and head of the former government’s civil service commission.
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 more than 40 data fields include dates of birth, phone numbers, names of fathers and grandfathers, fingerprints, and iris and face scans, said two Afghan entrepreneurs who were there. worked, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
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 ISI intelligence service, long the boss 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, on the model of the one created by the Pentagon in 2004 to gain dominance of identity 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 is the data with iris scans and fingerprints of around 9 million Afghans checked by the National Statistics and Information Agency. A biometric scan has been required in recent 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 on the creation of electronic national identities, known as e-Tazkira, as part of an unfinished project somewhat modeled on the biometrically activated Aadhaar national identity in India.
It’s the treasure chest, said a Western election assistance official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize future missions.
It is not clear whether the voter registration databases of more than 8 million Afghans are in the hands of the Taliban, the official said. Full prints were made 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 on 420,000 government employees, another anti-fraud measure overseen by Nadery as civil 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 would soon flee into exile, claiming that biometric information on all officials, from all corners of the country “would allow them to be linked under one umbrella.with banks and mobile operators for electronic payment.United Nations 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 who signed an August 25 letter calling for the urgent closure and erasure, where possible, of the tool. Afghanistan’s digital identity, 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 for fear it would put minorities on the digital target, as China has done by cracking down on its Uyghur ethnicity, have delayed its creation for nearly 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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