Concerns over Taliban accessing aid agency biometric data
People in Afghanistan are fearful of the Taliban accessing personal information captured and stored by aid agencies including biometric data which could be used to identify individuals. Experts have raised concern that approaches used by security firms and United Nations development agencies could prove problematic for refugees and vulnerable groups, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable trust of Thomson Reuters.
The Intercept reported that equipment used by the U.S. army for biometric collection has already been seized by the Taliban. Biometric data on Afghans who assisted the U.S. were widely collected, making anybody identified vulnerable to persecution from the Taliban.
Sources told the Intercept that there was little planning for such an event, while the U.S. Army plans to continue to spend another $11 million on biometrics capture equipment including 95 more devices.
The UNHCR has been using biometrics in the region since 2002 when it tested iris recognition technology on Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Aid agencies praise biometric technology’s anti fraud and contactless capabilities.
“Not enough care is taken by multilateral and development aid agencies to understand the local context – who can use the data, and if it can be used to perpetuate inequities and discrimination,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima regional policy director at digital rights group Access Now, which has published a guide for online safety for human rights defenders in Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan’s case it’s particularly shocking, as these agencies knew the troubled history of the country, and should have prepared for a worst-case scenario with lessons learned in Myanmar and elsewhere,” said Chima.
The Afghan national digital ID system supported by the World Bank and needed to access certain services can also be used to expose vulnerable ethnic groups according to Chima.
The use of digital ID and biometrics by aid agencies is coming under growing scrutiny, with the recent arrival of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh a particular area of concern. In June 2021 a consortium of aid agencies released a handbook on the dignified use of digital ID in humanitarian settings.