Stranded Afghans remove social media as Taliban seize US surveillance equipment

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Fearful of being targeted by Taliban online surveillance operations, U.S. Afghan allies have reportedly rushed in to remove their social media profiles. Meanwhile, privacy advocates fear that the U.S. data agenda possibly inherited by the Taliban could lead to a backlash threatening civil liberties in the United States.

The New York group Human Rights First announcement on August 16 that Taliban fighters captured American surveillance tools. These devices, known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE), were used by soldiers to scan biometric data from Afghans to match fingerprints on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and for other forensic investigations.

“We understand that the Taliban are now likely to have access to various databases and biometric equipment in Afghanistan, including some left behind by coalition military forces,” the human rights group said in a statement. “This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, as well as facial recognition technology.”

The Human Rights First opinion included guides for Afghan allies on protecting their digital identity.

The warning matches numerous reports of Afghans deleting their social media profiles. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would have circulated emails to its partners in Afghanistan advising them to “remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable”.

Former US military prosecutor John Maher told The Epoch Times that this specific warning about the Taliban taking HIIDE equipment is likely overblown.

Maher, who worked with the Afghan biometrics program while he was program director at the Parwan Justice Center, said HIIDE devices are password protected. And after a soldier uses the device and uploads the data to the central database, the protocol says to erase the device, according to Maher.

“Even if [Taliban] can get into this device, they’ll get an unclassified list of their own people, ”said Maher, who also used Afghan biometric evidence in the hit – though controversial– a campaign for President Donald Trump to pardon a soldier convicted of killing civilians.

On the broader issue of the Taliban conducting surveillance operations to locate their enemies, Maher said he believes they should be helped by more sophisticated governments such as China or Iran.

“I’m skeptical that the Taliban are this sophisticated,” said Maher, who also told The Epoch Times that he was helping Afghan allies leave the country through his US-Afghan company. Misbah Maher Council.

Although HIIDE devices pose no risk to Afghans, Taliban fighters have already used biometric systems to target their enemies. In 2016, for example, they allegedly used a government database to check whether passengers on buses were members of the security forces, according to one. 2016 TOLOnews report.

American Enterprise Institute principal researcher Klon Kitchen said the security risks posed by abandoned U.S. surveillance equipment is just one of many consequences of a botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A proper removal would have involved removing all digital files from U.S. facilities and servers in Afghanistan, destroying all computers and other physical equipment, and working with tech companies and social media platforms to protect Afghan identities. , Klon said in his weekly bulletin.

Meanwhile, biometric information collected from tens of millions of Afghans remains in US government databases, potentially to be used by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies for investigations, according to Maher. .

“It’s cross-agency data now,” he said.

Department of Defense (DoD) officials did not respond to numerous requests from The Epoch Times about the status and security of Afghan data, including whether centralized databases remain in Afghanistan.

Societal implications

More broadly, the DoD biometrics program has sparked debate about the role that this technology should play in society.

“It’s nothing more complicated than fingerprint data, which is over 100 years old,” Maher said of concerns about the government’s collection of biometric data.

Proponents of biometric programs emphasize the benefits of fighting crime. Along with the countless cases solved by collecting fingerprints, forensic experts have made inroads into DNA analysis, helping law enforcement solve mysteries such as the Golden State Killer case.

They also say that collecting biometric data about citizens allows governments to establish digital identities, which makes it easier for people to travel, open bank accounts, receive medical care and access health care. other social services.

“Imagine a world where onboarding doesn’t take five days but only four hours. Where to prove that you are eligible to receive your UN pension, it only takes two minutes from the smartphone in the palm of your hand, compared to two months with the old regular mail, ”said a United Nations website said, touting the digital identity of the United Nations. “The UN digital ID is the same underlying engine that will power all of these use cases and many more. “

However, civil liberties and privacy advocates have expressed concerns over the use of biometrics by governments for law enforcement purposes.

In his book on the DoD Biometrics Project, “First platoonAuthor Annie Jacobsen compared the Afghan program to the Chinese Communist Party’s “Physics for All” program imposed on Uyghur Muslims in China.

“In addition to DNA samples, the Physicals for All program collected biometric data on 36 million Chinese Uyghurs, including iris scans, facial images, voice prints and more,” Jacobsen wrote.

“Human rights groups are right to call it, but they have yet to recognize that this Physics for All program is modeled directly on the Pentagon’s program in Afghanistan. “

Jacobsen argued that the Afghan program could come to the United States in the form of contact tracing and vaccine passport technology. She noted that Palantir, the same company that designed software for the Afghan program, is now working with the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “to bring together disparate data sets and provide better visibility to HHS on the spread of COVID. “

“The argument that what is happening in China, meaning the mandatory banking of the biological data of an entire population, including DNA, could never happen in America is optimistic,” she wrote. “The 2020 pandemic has sparked excitement for government-led contact tracing programs in the United States, opening the door to military-grade programs with biodata from Americans’ databases.

“Because disease is at the center of this new threat, the reality that citizens’ DNA cell samples are of interest to the government is no longer science fiction. “

Anti-war activist Scott Horton agreed with Jacobsen’s thesis, arguing that the national flashback is the predictable consequence of wars abroad.

“Just look at the Patriot Act: it was supposed to protect us from terrorists, and yet they use it all the time on everyone,” he said.

This time around, it is the Tories who could fall victim to the backlash as US federal agencies step up their domestic surveillance activities, said Horton, editorial director of antiwar.com and author of “Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in” Afghanistan “.

“You know, the people who supported the war are now paying the price,” Horton told The Epoch Times.

“This is the war on terror comes home. This is what always happens.

To follow

Ken Silva covers national security issues for The Epoch Times. His reporting background also includes cybersecurity, crime and offshore finance – including three years as a journalist in the British Virgin Islands and two years in the Cayman Islands. Contact him at [email protected]


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