The Taliban’s recent offensive in Afghanistan has raised serious concerns about the US government’s careless use of biometric technologies. Security experts sounded the alarm after the Taliban claimed the capital city of Kabul, and in the process seized biometric identification devices that had been left behind by the US military.
The Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) was ostensibly supposed to be used to help identify terrorists and other threats, but it was also used to register the biometric information of Afghan civilians working with the US. That biometric data (which includes iris and fingerprint scans) was stored on the devices themselves, which means that the Taliban could potentially use them to identify and retaliate against those who assisted coalition forces.
To make matters worse, the HIIDE system can be used to tap into larger, centralized databases that store even more biographical information. Security experts suggested that the Taliban may not yet have all of the processing equipment to take full advantage of HIIDE, but were worried that Pakistan would be willing to supply the Taliban with all of the necessary resources.
It’s unclear how much information the Taliban would have access to through HIIDE, and through the broader government database. However, the Pentagon had at one point hoped to collect biometric data from 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population (upwards of 25 million people), and any compromised data would pose an immediate threat to US allies who remain in the country. More than 300,000 civilians assisted the US at some point in the past 20 years, and only a small handful of them have been evacuated to the United States.
With that in mind, human rights activists are arguing that the US has a much greater obligation to its allies. The HIIDE seizure also implicates the use of biometric technologies more generally, insofar as it underscores the very real human consequences that can occur if governments do not take the proper steps to protect the people being registered. In that regard, the situation in Afghanistan is a potential human rights crisis, and one of the worst-case scenarios that privacy advocates have warned about as biometric systems have expanded in the past few years.
“I don’t think anyone ever thought about data privacy or what to do in the event the system fell into the wrong hands,” said Human Rights First CTO and former Army Intelligence Officer Welton Chang. “Moving forward, the U.S. military and diplomatic apparatus should think carefully about whether to deploy these systems again in situations as tenuous as Afghanistan.”
Before the seizure, the Department of Defense had tried to share its HIIDE data with other federal agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, and was even chastised for not doing more to facilitate interdepartmental cooperation. The biometric information of the US’s Afghan allies was used in identification cards.
The government of Afghanistan had previously expressed interest in building its own national biometric identity system, though the country’s integrity on that front has been called into question in the past. The country has tried to conduct biometric elections, but low turnout, missing machines, and allegations of fraud ultimately lowered confidence in the final outcome.
Sources: The Intercept, CNET
August 20, 2021 – by Eric Weiss