What started as a tool to make life easier for the Afghans has now become a noose around their necks.
Thousands of them already struggling to ensure the physical safety of their families after the Taliban took control are now fretting over biometric databases as their own digital history can be used to track and target them.
According to a report by Reuters, after years of push to digitise databases in the country, and introduce digital identity cards and biometrics for voting, activists warn these technologies can be used to target and attack vulnerable groups.
The U.S.-based advocacy group, the Human Rights First, has published a Farsi-language version of its guide on how to delete digital history – that it had produced last year for activists in Hong Kong – and also put together a manual on how to evade biometrics.
It could also be used “to create a new class structure – job applicants would have their bio-data compared to the database, and jobs could be denied on the basis of having connections to the former government or security forces,” Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First told Reuters.
The most “dire circumstance” would be to use the data to target anyone who was involved in the previous government, or worked in an international non-profit, or was a human rights defender, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even five years ago, the Taliban was using government biometric systems to target members of the security forces, checking their fingerprints against a database, according to local media reports.
On Monday, just hours after the militants rolled into the capital Kabul, there were fears that this was already happening.
The digital identity cards, the tazkira, can expose certain ethnic groups, while even telecom companies have a “wealth of data” that can be used to track and target people.
Boys and men were “frantically going through phones to delete messages they have sent, music they’ve listened to & pictures they’ve taken,” BBC reporter Sana Safi wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Civil society groups including Access Now, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Unwanted Witness and Electronic Frontier Foundation have issued an open statement via the #WhyID initiative hosted by Access Now to call for biometric and digital identity systems in Afghanistan to be immediately shut down and their data erased.
The statement by 35 groups targets the U.S. government, World Bank, UN Agencies, humanitarian actors and private sector suppliers whose equipment is in use in Afghanistan.
There are at least three digital identity systems in operation recently in Afghanistan according to the statement: the Afghanistan Automated Biometric Identification System maintained by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior with support from the U.S. Government; the e-Tazkira electronic national identity card system coordinated by the Afghan National Statistics and Information Authority; and the U.S. Military’s ‘Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment’ (HIIDE) and biometric data created, used to create watchlists of foes and local allies. HIIDE equipment has already been seized by the Taliban.
Humanitarian agencies such as the UNHCR and World Food Programme have also built biometric databases in the past. The World Bank, as in other parts of the world, has pushed for the adoption of digital identity systems in Afghanistan by funding the e-Tazkira in the hope that it would lead to greater inclusion. It reported great successes in its project.
Aid agencies have encouraged the use of biometric databases for salary payments, welfare transfers, business licensing, voting and even registration at madrassas.
These databases contain a great deal of personal information on individuals including ethnicity, nationality, religion alongside unique biometric identifiers such as iris scans, fingerprints and face photographs.