In Kabul, people hastily delete files from their computers. In New York, an advocacy group began posting Pashto-language advice online on how to delete its digital history. In Ottawa, government officials are deleting photos of identifiable Afghans from online posts.
All of this is being done as Afghans count with a fulfilled data nightmare. Now that the Taliban have passed Afghanistan, they could gain access to vast reserves of personal data that did not exist when the extremist group ruled 20 years ago. The Afghans who worked with foreign powers during the decades when the Western military ruled the country could be identified. This could expose them to retaliation from the Taliban.
There are already fears that Taliban forces are stalking social media accounts. And there have been reports that the group intercepted military-grade biometric equipment as spoils of war.
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According to a confidential threat assessment sent to United Nations agencies and reported by Reuters, the Taliban is conducting house-to-house searches for Afghans who have cooperated with foreign countries. “Individuals occupying central positions in military, police and investigative units are particularly at risk,” the assessment says.
And The Intercept quoted anonymous military sources as saying that the Taliban seized what is known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) devices – handheld scanners that collect eye, fingerprint data. , photographic and biographical. They were used by American, Canadian and Afghan soldiers.
It is not known how much data the Taliban security forces could be able to extract from these systems. The Pentagon does not comment on reported seizures, nor does the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), which ended a 12-year mission in Afghanistan in 2014.
“We cannot provide details for operational and security reasons,” said Jessica Lamirande, spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense.
The Canadian military is taking at least one step to protect the identity of Afghans: It is now removing their images from its old online posts. “We are reviewing our public websites and social media platforms to ensure that the images do not pose a risk to Afghan nationals who have supported CAF operations,” said Ms. Lamirande. “This is in line with some of our NATO partners. “
The US State Department and the US Agency for International Development also said this week that they are removing images of Afghans from the Internet.
Beginning in the early 2000s, US-led coalition soldiers used HIIDE devices and similar equipment to scan the fingerprints and retina of Afghans identified as potential insurgents. Later, the devices were also used to scan characteristics of police and soldiers, with the aim of eliminating rogue elements from the Afghan security forces.
Now those same security forces could be in danger if the databases containing their information were compromised, said Welton Chang, chief technology officer for Human Rights First, a New York-based nonprofit.
Earlier this week, Human Rights First published online brochures in Dari and Pashto teaching Afghans how to beat surveillance. In addition to a guide on how to remove digital histories, the group also offers a tip sheet on how to avoid misuse of biometric data with tactics such as obscuring or distorting facial features or wearing colored contact lenses. (A biometrics is a measurement of a physical trait that can be used to identify an individual.)
Mr. Chang knows this world well. Fifteen years ago, as a US Army intelligence officer in Iraq, he participated in patrols that brought together groups of people after insurgent attacks.
The hope among the soldiers at the time, he said, was that by performing biometric scans of dozens of people, it would be possible to determine if a face in the crowd had been spotted in other skirmishes. or attacks.
“I don’t think these are very good justifications, in retrospect, for collecting biometric data,” Chang said. “Especially in the context of the knowledge we have now. “
Over the years, he said, the military coalition in Afghanistan has built up biometric databases of people who have worked as cooks, interpreters and cleaners at army bases. “The Afghan government itself collected biometric data from adults for their last election,” Chang said.
The potential for biometric flashbacks was predicted a long time ago. In 2012, Queen’s University lecturer and federal diplomat Alison Mitchell asked in an academic essay whether the Canadian Forces had given enough thought to the HIIDE scanners they were using in Afghanistan.
A “serious risk associated with the creation of biometric databases is that the information they contain can be misused or fall into the wrong hands,” Mitchell warned at the time.
She pointed out that a state’s data holdings can become powerful tools of repression in the midst of lawlessness. During the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, rival factions used national identity cards – which indicated ethnic identity – to determine who to kill.
Interception of modern biometric databases could aid forces in other conflicts with similar genocidal intent, she wrote. “The risk can be particularly worrying in places with sectarian or ethnic violence, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. (Contacted this week by The Globe and Mail, Ms Mitchell, who still works for Global Affairs Canada, said she was not allowed to speak publicly on the issue.)
Leah West, a national security professor at Carleton University who studies the legality of biometric technologies, said the military always tries to collect data on the local populations under their control because soldiers need perks that can put end of a war.
The problem is that conflicts can escalate into protracted police missions. This installs the soldiers as occupying forces who continually collect data on local populations, as privacy rights are suspended indefinitely.
“I think what we need to see is an evolution in our understanding,” Professor West said.
In future conflicts, she said, soldiers will need to start asking themselves a few key questions before they start collecting data: “How do we collect and protect this information? Who has access and who has control? On what basis do we collect this or disclose this? “
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