The United States and its allies spent hundreds of millions of dollars building databases for the Afghan people. The nobly stated goal: Promote law and order and government accountability and modernize a war-ravaged land.
The Taliban’s lightning seizure of power, most of that digital apparatus including biometrics for verifying identities apparently fell into Taliban hands.
Built with few data-protection safeguards, it risks becoming the high-tech jackboots of a surveillance state. As the Taliban get their governing feet, there are worries it will be used for social control and to punish perceived foes.
Putting such data to work constructively boosting education, empowering women, battling corruption requires democratic stability, and these systems were not architected for the prospect of defeat.
“It is a terrible irony,” said Frank Pasquale, Brooklyn Law School scholar of surveillance technologies. “It’s a real object lesson in ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’”
Since Kabul fell Aug. 15, indications have emerged that government data may have been used in Taliban efforts to identify and intimidate Afghans who worked with the U.S. forces.
People are getting ominous and threatening phone calls, texts and WhatsApp messages, said Neesha Suarez, constituent services director for Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, an Iraq War veteran whose office is trying to help stranded Afghans who worked with the U.S. find a way out.
The Taliban’s leaders say they are not interested in retribution. Restoring international aid and getting foreign-held assets unfrozen are a priority. There are few signs of the draconian restrictions especially on women they imposed when they ruled from 1996 to 2001.
A 27-year-old U.S. contractor in Kabul told The Associated Press he and co-workers who developed a U.S.funded database used to manage army and police payrolls got phone calls summoning them to the Defense Ministry. He is in hiding, changing his location daily, he said, asking not to be identified for his safety.
Ali Karimi, a University of Pennsylvania scholar, is among Afghans unready to trust the Taliban. He worries the databases will give rigid fundamentalist theocrats, known during their insurgency for ruthlessly killing enemy collaborators, “the same capability as an average U.S. government agency when it comes to surveillance and interception.”
The Afghan Personnel and Pay System has data on more than 700,000 security forces members dating back 40 years, said a senior security official from the fallen government. Its more than 40 data fields include birth dates, phone numbers, fathers’ and grandfathers’ names, fingerprints and iris and face scans, said two Afghan contractors who worked on it, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Another database the Taliban inherit contains iris and face scans and fingerprints on 420,000 government employees another anti-fraud measure which Nadery oversaw as civil service commissioner. It was eventually to have been merged with the e-Tazkira database, he said.
John Woodward, a Boston University professor and former CIA officer who pioneered the Pentagon’s biometric collection, is worried about intelligence agencies hostile to the United States getting access to the data troves.