Biometric system containing personal information of millions of Afghans raises concern among human rights defenders who fear it will be used by the Taliban to identify and potentially harm people who have worked with the state-backed Afghan government -United or international organizations that have promoted women’s rights.
The system, which was created by the United States over 15 years ago and ultimately shared in part with the Afghan government, contains millions of fingerprints, iris scans and face photos of Afghans including the biometric data was collected by US and coalition forces, who were tasked with registering as many people as possible.
It was originally intended to contribute to a global effort to identify and track down terrorists, by creating a database of fingerprints and other identifiers that could be used to track down the source of the attacks.
NBC News spoke to three military veterans who worked on the biometric data collection project and who reviewed public documents that detail the broad program. Everyone requested anonymity for the sake of personal security and in order to discuss sensitive aspects of the biometric system.
If the Taliban gain access to US-created datasets as they seize power over Afghanistan and are able to synchronize them with biometric collection devices, human rights activists say the data could be kept to create targeted lists of people who have worked with coalition forces or advocacy groups in any capacity. Last week, 36 civil society organizations signed a joint letter calling on governments, aid organizations and private entrepreneurs who have created databases in Afghanistan to take immediate action to shut them down and erase them.
“Under authoritarian regimes, these [biometric] the data has been used to target vulnerable people, and the digitized and searchable databases magnify the risks of data abuse, ”the letter said.
Eric Pahon, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, denied that biometric data is at risk. “The United States has taken cautious steps to ensure that sensitive data does not fall into the hands of the Taliban. There is no risk of this data being misused, ”he said.
But two U.S. Army veterans who worked on the program said there was particular fear that a biometric list could be used specifically to target women. Despite recent Taliban promises to protect women’s rights, activists have reported being beaten, and the United Nations says the number of women and children killed this year has reached its highest level since the UN started keeping records in 2009 as violence spread across the country.
“Many people fear that if there is a way for the Taliban to use biometric information, it could be used to target women who have held any government position, female police officers or female journalists,” said a military officer. who worked on biometric data collection in Afghanistan.
Large biometric systems have emerged in recent years as a way for governments to create databases of people who can be identified for a variety of means. China has collected DNA samples and biometric information from Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups who are forced to settle in detention camps in the west of the country. Chinese authorities have cited the crime-fighting potential of the technology, but human rights activists fear biometrics may be used to escalate racial profiling, track down dissidents or anyone who refuses to comply on the government’s agenda.
In India, the government has worked for years to build the world’s largest biometric identification system, with over a billion people registered. The system is used to deliver social services, but has come under heavy criticism from advocates for the poor who say its technical problems have led to denials of benefits that have led some to starvation.
The US Department of Defense wouldn’t say how many Afghans are in the system, but veterans who worked on biometric data collection in Afghanistan say it is extensive. A former Air Force medic who worked in an Afghan hospital was told he had to scan irises, take fingerprints and photograph the faces of every Afghan who walked through the hospital doors.
“Men, women, children, dead children, corpses, every person I meet would be placed in the biometric system,” he said. said the doctor. He estimates that he was responsible for entering the information of more than 1,500 people into the system.
The US-led biometric data collection project in Afghanistan, however, was so sprawling that a veteran of the Afghanistan war said it might not be of much use. Without people trained in how to restrict datasets, it would be very difficult to use them, according to the veteran, who worked on collecting U.S. biometric data in Afghanistan and asked to remain anonymous to protect his security.
“Whether you are in a database or not, it does not confirm or deny that you have any allegiance to the United States. At its basic level, it is a positive identification. You confirm that you are who you say you are, ”he said.
Unlike a password or ID card, biometric information, like fingerprints or retinal scan, is much more difficult to hack or forge, making it a reliable way to positively identify individuals. people.
“It was a question of volume”
The United States began in earnest the massive collection of biometric data on Afghans in 2006. By 2009, the FBI and the United States military were already officially sharing biometric data sets with the United States-backed Afghan government and training them. Afghans to data analysis, helping the country built its own biometric system administered by some 50 Afghans at the Home Office, according to an FBI slide show viewed by NBC News.
Then, in 2011, the United States officially turned over some of its biometric data sets to the Afghan government, according to a former U.S. military officer who worked closely on the U.S. program and spoke on condition of anonymity.
“As for the initial recordings, they were on an external hard drive which was carried by hand and handed over to a contractor to create and manage the recordings for the Afghan government,” said the former officer.
Three officers who previously served in the US military in Afghanistan and were tasked with separately collecting eye and hand data from Afghans said they understood the goal was primarily for the security forces to have a base of fingerprint data to look up in case a bomb is found anywhere in the world, for example, and a positive match could be made. The goal, they said, was to scan the irises and fingerprints of as many people as possible. It was part of what President George W. Bush at the time called the “global war on terror”.
One of the program’s first goals in Afghanistan was to capture the biometric information of 80 percent of the country’s population, according to a 2010 State Department report.
The United States has trained Afghans to both collect biometric data from individuals and scan databases to find matches, according to a 2014 Joint Forces Quarterly. program scope report. Biometric files created by the United States were also handed over to Afghan forces as insurgent “watch lists” regularly shared with Afghan security forces, according to the report.
“It was a question of volume. There was no real targeting of suspicious activity. It was mostly like we knew someone in that village who said he could bring a lot of people and enlist us and that would make the commanders happy, ”said the former officer who worked in close collaboration on the US Army’s biometrics program in Afghanistan.
Manuals on eBay
One of the primary tools used by US and coalition forces to collect biometric information from the Afghan people in the field was called the portable interagency identity detection equipment, or HIIDE device. Interception reported last week that the devices were seized earlier this month by the Taliban, but whether the Taliban synchronized these devices with biometric databases created by the United States remains an open question.
HIIDE machines, which scan fingerprints, irises, facial photos and allow people to collect information to capture demographic details, were not hard to find in Afghanistan, according to the three veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan. User manuals for the devices are currently for sale on eBay.
Human rights defenders fear that with the devices and training the United States provides on database creation and access, the Taliban could recruit someone trained in the program and start organizing and raising their own. datasets. Last week, Human Rights First released a guide on how to protect biometric data from misuse by the Taliban, translated into Pashto and Dari, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan.
“Now that they have the equipment, they can potentially create their own database,” said Welton Chang, former military intelligence officer and chief technology officer at Human Rights First. They can use biometric databases to discriminate against people or create a permanent record that will follow people.