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Evaluation ordered of biometric screening of displaced Afghans

Report demanded on database integrity
Evaluation ordered of biometric screening of displaced Afghans

The Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has announced it is beginning an evaluation of the screening of displaced persons from Afghanistan which is using biometric enrollment and other vetting processes. Military media suggests the move is to allay fears that persons posing a security threat were arriving unvetted. Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee has stated its concern over the consequences should the Taliban obtain biometric information on Afghans who helped the U.S. and ramifications for future biometrics projects.

The Office announced the evaluation online along with a memorandum to the joint chiefs of staff requesting them to provide a point of contact to help in this project by 15 September.

The memorandum details the areas of its evaluation, covering how displaced persons are screened biometrically and that it follows process; how persons not previously enrolled in DoD databases are being enrolled, identified and tracked; how individuals identified as security threats are managed throughout the screening project and how individuals’ arrival and departure from DoD-managed facilities is managed when screening is not complete.

The Office will examine how the screening is carried out and how this information is shared with the Department of Homeland Security. The evaluation will be carried out as facilities such as the Dulles Expo Center and Fort Pickett, Virginia.

According to military media in the U.S., troops processed tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans at Kabul airport as they were being evacuated amid the Taliban taking power. The Army Times explains, “Once troops at the gate confirmed identities and paperwork of those lined up at the gates, State and Homeland Security Department representatives screened them and sent along to way stations in the Middle East and Europe before making their way to military installations stateside.”

The Army Times reports that screening took place along the journey to the U.S. and that Afghans applying for special immigrant visas, such as those verified as having worked with American forces, would continue to be vetted on a regular basis even after they secure legal residency in the U.S.

House Armed Services Committee warnings over Afghanistan biometrics

In a report accompanying  fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, the House of Representative committee which oversees the DoD, has warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the Taliban has obtained biometric information about Afghans who helped the U.S. military, reports Roll Call.

The report states that the Defense Department’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) contains about 1 million entries, posing a potentially huge threat if it were to fall into the hands of the Taliban or other enemy of the U.S. after reports that the group had obtained biometric capture hardware.

The Roll Call quotes from the report as stating the Taliban accessing the data would pose “a catastrophic loss that permanently undermines the safety of Afghan citizens who helped the U.S. during twenty years of war and occupation” and “would also fundamentally weaken Department of Defense biometric collection efforts moving forward because of actual or perceived data security concerns.”

Staff at the ICRC and World Economic Forum have also raised concerns over the threat to future biometrics projects and suggest restrictions to how they are conducted.

The Committee has asked the Pentagon to provide an assessment of what happened in Kabul and to address the “current integrity” of the entire biometric database. It also asks to clarify whether the Pentagon shared personally identifying information on individuals with the Taliban who were helping to screen those seeking to evacuate via Kabul airport.

Other biometric databases could pose an even greater threat to the security of the Afghan individuals they contain. The Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS) used by the Afghan ministries of the Interior and Defense to pay army and police personnel contains around 40 entries for each individual.

Civil society groups have called for all such databases to be erased or relocated out of the country.

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