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Urgent call to erase biometric, digital ID databases in Afghanistan

Urgent call to erase biometric, digital ID databases in Afghanistan

Biometric and digital identity projects created to foster inclusion and security in Afghanistan may now lead to the very opposite, claims a coalition of civil society groups calling for the urgent safeguarding or erasure of systems created by foreign governments and aid agencies. They fear the personal data contained by the systems, if accessed by the Taliban could be used to target individuals such as human rights defenders, journalists, and groups such as minorities and people with certain religious beliefs.

Civil society groups including Access Now, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Unwanted Witness and Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as individuals such as Dr. Keren Weitzberg, Dr. Edgar Whitley and Margie Cheesman have issued an open statement via the #WhyID initiative hosted by Access Now to call for biometric and digital identity systems in Afghanistan to be immediately shut down and their data erased.

The statement by 35 groups targets the U.S. government, World Bank, UN Agencies, humanitarian actors and private sector suppliers whose equipment is in use in Afghanistan. explains the types of systems established over the years and reports of biometric equipment already falling into the hands of the Taliban, and provides an eight-point action plan for dealing with existing systems and preventing further risks.

Biometric and digital ID systems and what they contain

There are at least three digital identity systems in operation recently in Afghanistan according to the statement: the Afghanistan Automated Biometric Identification System maintained by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior with support from the U.S. Government; the e-Tazkira electronic national identity card system coordinated by the Afghan National Statistics and Information Authority; and the U.S. Military’s ‘Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment’ (HIIDE) and biometric data created, used to create watchlists of foes and local allies. HIIDE equipment has already been seized by the Taliban.

Humanitarian agencies such as the UNHCR and World Food Programme have also built biometric databases in the past. The World Bank, as in other parts of the world, has pushed for the adoption of digital identity systems in Afghanistan by funding the e-Tazkira in the hope that it would lead to greater inclusion. It reported great successes in its project.

Aid agencies have encouraged the use of biometric databases for salary payments, welfare transfers, business licensing, voting and even registration at madrassas.

These databases contain a great deal of personal information on individuals including ethnicity, nationality, religion alongside unique biometric identifiers such as iris scans, fingerprints and face photographs. Even the national digital ID system e-Tazkira contains ethnicity and religious belief. The card is used for voting, registering SIMs and obtaining bank loans – all potentially of interest to the Taliban.

“These are all clear examples of why the mandatory and centralized collection of extensive data — especially biometric data — is always dangerous, and why civil society organizations from around the globe have joined the #WhyID campaign calling on international actors to think carefully about the risks and alternatives before adopting biometrics and other digital identity tools,” states the open letter.

Life or death situation posed by potential biometric records access

Concerns grow over the implications of the data being accessed by the Taliban. Human Rights First claimed that the Taliban is likely to have access to the databases and local media reported five years ago that the Taliban had used government biometrics to identify members of Afghanistan’s security forces.

“These databases put targets on the backs of people who are already in grave danger, and make it extremely difficult for them to access basic services, move from place to place, or communicate with their loved ones without compromising their safety,” said Carolyn Tackett, deputy advocacy director at Access Now in a release accompanying the open statement.

“The international actors who fast-tracked biometrics as a silver bullet solution in Afghanistan — including the producers of these technologies — must now move even more swiftly to reckon with the danger they’ve created and prevent further harm.”

Afghans are reportedly rushing to delete their digital pasts, though people around the world may be hampering efforts to remove records and even evacuate the country by sharing photos of Afghans they are claiming to help.

8-point biometric erasure plan

The open letter includes an eight-step plan from: “1) Wherever possible, immediately shut down systems and securely erase data,” covering a moratorium on any continued use of biometrics in Afghanistan, restricting access, and moving data off equipment physically located in Afghanistan, to step eight, which is to publicly announce any data breaches.

This follows a guide also published by Access Now informing individuals of how they can secure their own online presence.

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