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Afghanistan navigates controversies on digital identity journey

Afghanistan navigates controversies on digital identity journey
 

In Afghanistan, the Tazkira has been a key identity document providing proof of nationality and residence for over 100 years. This traditional paper-based document system has changed significantly, reflecting the country’s move toward modernization. Afghan National ID Tazkira currently known as e-Tazkira was launched in May 2018 under President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. This change aimed to increase security and facilitate access to essential digital services. The digital identity card, compliant with international standards, not only ensures identity data accuracy but also incorporates biometrics.

Launch of controversial electronic ID cards in Afghanistan

The Library of Congress reports that President Ashraf Ghani initiated the distribution of e-Tazkira, Afghanistan’s new electronic national identity card, in 2018 as a result of security concerns. Despite being advocated by the 2013 Population Registration Act, there were serious obstacles to that idea such as including nationality and ethnicity which led to debates and demonstrations. Critics believe that the term “Afghan” implies Pashtun ethnicity, and relations among different ethnicities have been strained. This dispute demonstrates the difficulty of introducing digital identification systems in an atmosphere where politics and society are divided.

Research insights

Academic research conducted in 2022 reveals that during the last twenty years, Afghanistan has been transformed through e-services with different governmental and non-governmental organizations carrying out projects in numerous sectors. Moreover, corruption has been reduced by this digital transformation leading to accountability and transparency across the country.

Research published in the Technium Social Sciences Journal (2023) shows that Afghanistan’s e-government systems and applications initially demonstrated promise but later weakened due to inadequate human-computer interaction (HCI) considerations. The difficulty of user interfaces and the lack of local language support have led to fear of submitting incorrect data among users, giving rise to reliance on distributors. Resultantly, the systems planned for the general population were primarily used by government officials acting as data entry clerks. The study highlights the critical importance of HCI in the success of e-government initiatives.

Women’s access to digital ID cards: a path to development in Afghanistan

Obtaining a national identity card like Tazkira is vital for women in Afghanistan if they want to achieve economic, social, and political inclusion.  As explained in the World Bank blog, Women face a striking gender gap of 52 percent without ID, compared to men’s ID which is only lacking by 6 percent, as of 2017, due to obstacles such as conservative cultural attitudes and logistical issues. In this regard, the Women’s Economic Empowerment-Rural Development Project (WEE-RDP) by the World Bank and the Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP) have been established to remove these hindrances through promoting demand for IDs and raising awareness of the significance of legal documentation. The launch of e-Tazkira in 2018 has simplified the process and increased female registration with women accounting for 47 percent of new entrants into the system. However, there continue to be barriers which include literacy rates that are still low as well as limited access to technology. For Afghan women to participate in public services provision, and economic activities or claim their rights, they will require an adequate legal identity, which makes it an important variable concerning the country’s development agenda towards gender equality.

Surge in Tazkira distribution highlights cost concerns

According to a recent report by Tolo News, the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA) regulatory body of identity cards, disclosed the distribution of over 400,000 electronic national identity cards (e-Tazkira) during the past month alone, including more than 53,000 in Kabul. There are problems like this for people such as Rahmatullah from Samangan province who is incapable of buying e-Tazkiras. Furthermore, these cards have been subject to criticism due to their high prices with residents like Sayed from Paktia demanding reduced prices and better facilities. After the Islamic Emirate took power, NSIA has given out more than six million e-Tazkiras across the country.

The fall of the country’s democratically elected government led to a call by civil society organizations to erase and secure biometric and digital ID data in Afghanistan. A coalition of Access Now, Commonwealth, Human Rights Initiative, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated that the data would be used to target individuals like human rights defenders, journalists, and minorities.

Risks of biometric data systems for Afghans

A Human Rights Watch report claimed in March 2022 that the Taliban now controls systems containing sensitive biometric data that were left behind by Western donor governments in August 2021. These digital identity systems store Afghans’ personal and biometric information, including iris scans, fingerprints, pictures, and home addresses. The Taliban could use this information to target perceived opponents.

It is unknown whether the Afghan National Biometric System, which stores data collected for e-Tazkira, has been used successfully to identify the Taliban’s enemies, but the breach of some Afghan’s biometric data has already been confirmed.

Afghanistan’s e-Tazkira program represents a remarkable shift to digital identity, which guarantees improved safety and modernized access to services. This transition signifies progress but it also reveals some challenges like ethnic sensitivities, poor user interface designs, and security risks under the Taliban regime. Overcoming these obstacles, however, the program has made significant contributions towards combating corruption as well as promoting transparency and women’s participation. Nevertheless, the need for strong human-computer interaction and data privacy policies cannot be overstated. The Afghan experience therefore becomes an important learning point for future digital identity projects, highlighting the need for a considerate and secure implementation strategy.

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