The world watched in horror as the Taliban marched through all of Afghanistan in only ten days to reclaim it from the American-supported Afghan government. The US forces had little time to properly evacuate everyone and everything by the August 31st deadline, and our news feeds were filled with images and videos of the mad rush to leave the country along with a shocking suicide attack by ISIS-K that took 13 American lives and the lives of dozens more Afghanis.
The choices made by the Biden Administration and the military establishment will be debated for quite some time. In the short term, however, the global community must ensure that human rights are preserved by the new Taliban government, and one of the most concerning aspects of that mission is the digital footprint of our Afghan allies.
Part of the nation-building exercise the United States performed on Afghanistan was an attempt to modernize its infrastructure to ensure fair and open elections. By virtue of wanting to elect a government actually chosen by the people, biometric systems from German company Dermalog were used to verify the identities of each eligible Afghan citizen. These systems would match Afghan citizens via photographs and fingerprints into the system in order to ensure that both the person was who they claimed to be and also so they couldn’t vote more than once. Though it was considered a bit of a clumsy system which took up to ten minutes to verify a citizen the next effect of these 40,000 Dermalog biometric devices was the general Afghan population was identified and logged into a centralized system along with their democratic choices of who they saw fit to lead their country.
Now that the Taliban have taken over, this biometric database could literally spell death for scores of Afghan citizens that their new leadership considers a threat, an apostate, or simply undesirable. Given the fast and sudden evacuation of not only the United States but also top Afghanistan government leaders, we have left behind not only quite a bit of military equipment but also these biometric identity systems. That has to be a terrifying prospect for the thousands of Afghan citizens that assisted the United States military and their fledgling government, including the translators and their families that have been desperately trying to leave for the USA for years and were left behind.
When the United States established a new government the internet was still in its infancy. But during our occupation, a new generation of Afghans was raised under that government with access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, TikTok, Instagram and other major platforms that exposed them to the rest of the world and they were thriving.
But the Taliban, with their strict religious codes for women and requirements of conformity to their century’s old traditions, is in charge of the internet service providers in the country. This means, as the government, they can force these ISPs to turn over data on their users. Phone numbers, GPS locations, where the devices are going on the internet, not to mention actual names, genders, and other identifying information.
When the government controls the internet, free expression is censored and citizens are heavily tracked. China has been making inroads into dozens of countries with their Belt and Road Initiative which, aside from infrastructure like roads, is bringing their authoritarian brand of government-owned internet. With trillions of dollars worth of rare earth metals in Afghanistan, it’s in China’s best interests to align with the Taliban and help them maintain control of the country while they team up and extract the metals.
If that happens, the Taliban will have one of the most sophisticated ways of censoring and tracking their citizens. Many predict that social media will remain open in Afghanistan because the Taliban themselves have become rather adept at using it; however, what they fail to see is that who controls the internet also controls the flow of information. It’s no wonder that the freest generation of Afghans are now hurrying to erase their digital footprints before the Taliban achieves this level of control.
If this situation underscores anything, it’s that once humans become interconnected we share prolifically. For most Democratic nations, that level of sharing is fine, even encouraged, but for a dictatorial regime that level of openness can result in punitive action or execution. In the evolving emergency that is the safety and security of the Afghan people, western companies need to get involved. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Spotify, even the China-based TikTok, and others need to create an easy way to allow anyone to suspend and hide (or even permanently delete) their profiles, posts, search history, listening or viewing histories, and more. This would have the net effect of allowing the Facebooks of the world to deny governmental requests for user information from the Taliban. So far the news media only seems to be querying social media platforms on how they will handle the Taliban accounts themselves.
Afghan citizens may not be able to do much about a potentially seized biometric database with their unique information in it, but if they need to scrub their histories and hide, they should ideally do the following:
Delete all posts, search histories, music and viewing histories, and anything else the Taliban may not like.
Then delete the accounts and set up new accounts.
Use the erase feature that comes integrated with Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android. This will wipe out any potential evidence on the device.
Setup the mobile phone again and enable encryption with a strong password but do not use biometrics like Face ID or fingerprints as you can be forced to easily open your phone.
Obfuscate your face in public and continuously look down when in public to avoid facial recognition. You can also use heavy layers of makeup to add contours to your face.
With the Taliban in control of the internet service providers, biometric machines, and more, the citizens of Afghanistan that do not align with their beliefs have every right to be worried. While the United States and its allies are no longer in the country, we can still help in our own way. Taking two steps backward with human rights in the region should be appalling to all. Good luck, we’re with you.