July 9, 2012 -
Afghanistan is utilizing biometrics technology as a helpful counter-insurgency tool. The Afghan government has started taking fingerprints and scanning the eyes of those that were arrested or imprisoned, joining the army or police, or attempting to get into coalition military bases.
Of the 30 million Afghans, the government and American army have collected digital records of more than 2.5 million. And these are checked against watch lists of suspects.
Soldiers even took biometrics samples from corpses of Taliban fighters, following the recent June 21 attack on a restaurant beside Qargha Lake in Kabul, six hours after death. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammad Anwar Muniri, who leads the Afghan program, an effort of this kind has produced successes, such as the identification of a corpse of an unnamed suicide-bomber they were not able to detain.
Other cases have been cited which have resulted in benefit from the use of biometrics, such as the recapture of 500 Taliban prisoners who had escaped from Kandahar’s Sarposa prison last year.
And the database is growing, as more Afghans are included in the program. “Fighting-age males”, usually those between 15 and 70 years of age, are typically asked to have their biometrics collected. Police and military patrols ask all men in villages to go to mosques to be logged. Men are randomly stopped and asked to be scanned. Moreover, biometric machines have been installed at all border crossings.
Data collected are passed on to the U.S. military, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and other allied countries, as part of the data sharing agreement. NATO and the U.S. Defense Department however keep policies and processes concerning the biometric program classified.
Sergeant-Major Robert Haemmerle, of the U.S. Army’s biometrics program in Afghanistan said: “There is a vetting process to be put on a watch list. It’s not just a matter of ‘I don’t like this guy’. There is a deliberate policy and process to ensure that people’s rights are respected, that it’s not abused.”
However, some drawbacks of the biometrics program have been cited such as cases of wrongly identified Afghans who are now denied foreign visas or jobs. As the system is highly confidential, these people have no way of challenging it.
The quality of the data collected is crucial as this could lead to cases of mistaken identity. And this is one aspect that is being questioned by Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) based in San Francisco that keeps watch on rights abuses relating to digital technology.
Is biometrics an effective weapon for counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan?