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Afghanistan crisis: People scramble to delete digital histories amid fears Taliban have seized data

Terrified Afghans are scrambling to delete their digital history amid fears the Taliban have seized Afghanistan’s biometric database which they could use to track and target their ‘enemies’. 

Afghans have reportedly been going through their phones and deleting messages, pictures as well as their music history for fear of repercussions from the Islamic militants who have taken control of the country.   

After years of a push to digitise databases in the country, and introduce digital identity cards and biometrics for voting, activists warn these technologies could be used by the Taliban to hunt down vulnerable groups. 

The biometric databases – which includes facial recognition technology – makes it much more difficult for Afghans to hide and the data could even be used to find out who their friends and family are. 

Terrified Afghans are scrambling to delete their digital history amid fears the Taliban have seized Afghanistan’s biometric database which they could use to track and target their ‘enemies’

‘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. 

‘This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology,’ the group added. 

The U.S.-based advocacy group quickly 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.

Tips to bypass facial recognition include looking down, wearing things to obscure facial features, or applying many layers of makeup, the guide said, although fingerprint and iris scans were difficult to bypass.

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

It comes after  U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of ‘chilling’ curbs on human rights and violations against women and girls, and Amnesty International on Monday said thousands of Afghans – including academics, journalists and activists – were ‘at serious risk of Taliban reprisals’. 

An Afghan family rushes to the Hamid Karzai International Airport as they flee the Afghan capital of Kabul

An Afghan family rushes to the Hamid Karzai International Airport as they flee the Afghan capital of Kabul

People flee as smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan

People flee as smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in Kandahar, Afghanistan

Taliban fighters stand guard on the road to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

Taliban fighters stand guard on the road to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.

The data 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,’ he added.

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.

‘Taliban started door-to-door search’ for government officials, former security forces members and those who worked for foreign non-profits, a Twitter user called Mustafa said on Monday, adding that journalists’ homes were also searched.

A Kabul resident said in a private message that she had heard of house-to-house inspections, and that the Islamist militants were using a ‘biometrics machine’.

The Taliban, in a statement, said it ‘assures all its citizens that it will, as always, protect their life, property and honour and create a peaceful and secure environment for its beloved nation.’

But digital rights groups are already getting ‘significant numbers’ of requests from civil society groups and activists on securing their digital presence, said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now.

‘We are also very concerned about databases retained by aid agencies and other groups, and alarmed that there is no clarity whether mitigation measures are being taken to either delete or purge information that can be used to target people,’ he said.

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, he added.

The responsibility to secure data systems was ultimately that of the Afghan government, said Chang, although the U.S. forces and its allies probably had a role in ‘designing the systems in the first place and helping with implementation.’

‘Likely not enough deliberate planning was done at the outset of creating, maintaining and turning over the system in terms of risk assessments and prevention of misuse,’ he added.   

Meanwhile, Afghans were doing what they could to scrub their digital profiles.

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.

It comes as it emerged that the jihadist commanders are trying to track down Afghans who co-operated with Allied forces after the invasion and toppling of the Taliban regime following the September 11, 2001 attacks, with one video showing a militant shooting at a man on a wall at Hamid Karzai International Airport. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk