Policy and technology experts have added another wrinkle to the evolving identity crisis in Afghanistan. The story started to take shape a couple of weeks ago, following reports that the Taliban had taken possession of biometric HIIDE devices left behind by the US military.
At the time, observers were worried that the Taliban would be able to use those HIIDE devices to access US biometric databases. The latest reports downplay the threat on that front, but warn that Afghanistan’s own biometric databases could ultimately pose a bigger threat to the local population. In that regard, sources close to the situation indicated that the flow of information went in one direction with the US military. HIIDE devices were used to capture biometric data and transmit it to a Department of Defense database, but the devices themselves only had access to limited information like local watchlists.
However, the US was also trying to help Afghanistan set up its own biometric infrastructure, and those databases may be far less secure than their American counterparts. Most notably, the Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS) contains roughly half a million records of people who worked for the National Army and the National Police, all of whom could face retaliation (and even execution) for their involvement with the official government.
The Afghan Ministries of Interior and Defense set up the APPS database in 2016 to cut back on payroll fraud, though each record contains a vast trove of personal information. Some of that information (such as name and date of birth) is fairly conventional, while some (such as favorite fruit) seems more absurd. Other info, including addresses, unique ID numbers, and biometric records, is dangerous because it could be used to track down and identify the person in the profile.
To make matters worse, APPS also contains additional details about service members’ individual relationships, including fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and tribal elders. That means that the impact could spread outward if the Taliban uses APPS to move through the personal networks of potential political opponents. All of the information in the APPS database was stored permanently, and was not deleted even after someone left the service.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at the databases and started printing lists based on this … and now are head-hunting former military personnel,” one person with knowledge of the situation told the MIT Technology Review.
Meanwhile, the APPS system may not be the only (or even the biggest) biometric database in Afghanistan. The government had been trying to put together a national biometric identification system (often at the behest of, and with financial backing from, other countries), and had started using biometric identification to facilitate various government services, including background checks, driver’s licenses, and college entrance exams. That Afghan Automatic Biometric Identification System (AABIS) database may have as many as 8.1 million records, while as many as 6.2 million people may have tried to sign up for a national ID card.
Afghanistan also tried to conduct biometric elections, though the government struggled with the implementation of that particular system. Either way, the real problem is that the Taliban could use biometric scanners to match individuals captured in any one of those biometric databases, giving it a powerful identification tool that could help consolidate its power.
Most of those biometric systems were not yet fully functional, and were not well integrated with one another. That lack of interoperability could slow the Taliban’s progress as it tries to map Afghanistan’s population.
Even so, the change of power demonstrates how biometric technology can rapidly devolve into a human rights crisis in an unstable region. The threat to those still in the country is very real, especially if the Taliban does find a way to take advantage of the technology at its disposal.
Source: MIT Technology Review
September 1, 2021 – by Eric Weiss