ICheckpoints in Kabul are now manned by Taliban fighters using biometric scanners paid for by the American people to track down civilians who worked and fought alongside us, which should be an account for anyone who sold surveillance biometric as a tool for good.
Over the past 20 years, Afghanistan has become a technological training ground. This is where America experimented with new weapons of war, like the Predator drone, often with horrific results. This is also where we experimented with new forms of surveillance, both militarized and humanitarian. By going from community to community, indiscriminately scanning the biometrics of Afghans, the United States hoped to create new tools for counterinsurgency.
This effort failed to create anything that could stop the Taliban, but it did create some incredibly dangerous things in the hands of the Taliban.
About 80 percent of the country, or roughly 25 million people, have been targeted for inclusion in the US military’s biometric database. Now, portable interagency identity detection equipment can scan Afghans’ fingerprints, faces and irises to reveal biographical information. The Microsoft-powered device can also tap into a much larger national database of information on millions of Afghans collected by the United States over two decades of war.
With this technology, the Taliban will take control of one of the most sophisticated state surveillance systems on the planet.
It’s getting worse. While few expected the US military to focus on promoting the civil rights of Afghans, many expected better from the United Nations, especially the United Nations Refugee Agency. Instead, UNHCR waged a nearly two-decade campaign to demand biometric data to receive aid, creating a dangerous new database for the Taliban to control.
Since 2002, Afghanistan has served as a de facto testing ground for new biometric technology, including one of the world’s first iris scanning systems. For aid agencies, it was a way not only to confirm the identity of employees, but also to track who received food and other basic items, preventing beneficiaries from receiving too much food under multiple conditions. names. Complaints about privacy and civil rights have been dismissed as fear-mongering – as they so often are – but Afghans will now pay the price.
As in countless other low-income countries, biometric surveillance has become a substitute for civil society and the rule of law. Yes, fraud and embezzlement are real problems. Yes, we must ensure that aid reaches those who need it most. But when we respond to humanitarian crises with dystopian tools like facial recognition and iris scans, we are undermining the very democratic principles we were meant to stand for.
Whenever biometric surveillance has become more entrenched in Afghan society, the risks of abuse have increased, but pushback has been ignored. When facial recognition became the right of entry to vote, those on the ground and their supporters around the world stepped back, only to be ignored again.
“One of the Taliban’s most terrifying tools is the elaborate biometric surveillance network that was largely bought and paid for with US tax dollars. “
Today, the elaborate biometric surveillance network that was largely bought and paid for with US tax dollars is now one of the Taliban’s most terrifying tools. Aid workers, interpreters, and other American allies can get false papers, they can erase their phones, but they can’t change their face. And for those who risk their lives to get to Kabul airport and the fleeting last hope of security, every Taliban checkpoint carries the risk of a face scan and deadly repercussions.
Most countries do not face the same risk of collapse as the Afghan government, but the lessons still apply. Every time we let a business or government enter our biometric data, we are giving them the one form of information that will haunt us for life. You can change your name but not your iris or your DNA.
Even though we trust our own government with such tracking tools (and we shouldn’t), what about anyone who can take the data? Nearly 200,000 faces of Americans were taken in a single Department of Homeland Security hack in 2019, but that’s infinitesimal compared to the millions of federal employees whose data was stolen in the hack. ‘Office of Personnel Management of 2015.
It doesn’t take a government collapse to see our biometric data transformed from a tool used by the police into a tool used by criminals and activists. And so far, there is only one surefire way to protect our biometric data and prevent its reuse: to not collect it in the first place.