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Has the Taliban got access to biometric data?

A US soldier takes a biometric scan of an Afghan villager in 2010. Credit: Getty

August 25, 2021 - 7:00am

The rapid collapse of Afghan Government forces has left the Taliban in control: not just of territory and the political institutions, but of military hardware left behind by the Americans and their allies. Western intelligence services must be busy calculating the value of both the physical firepower and the insider glimpse of NATO systems left behind for the Taliban.

One piece of portable kit in widespread use by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) is a device that resembles a DSLR camera. The HIIDE does actually take photographs, as well as iris and fingerprint scans, and can check them against an internal database of over 20,000 biometric profiles. According to author and journalist Annie Jacobsen, the goal was to collect biometric profiles of 80% of Afghanistan’s population. They even collected bodily fluids from the dead.

The main goal was to identify individuals who might pose a threat. An insurgent planning to set explosives can lie about their name and carry false papers, but they can’t distance themselves from their own fingerprints, eyeballs, or genetic code. The Pentagon’s Automated Biometrics Identifications System, ABIS, is said to have over a million profiles. This is precisely the kind of information that is in use right now to screen Afghan refugees for would-be terrorists among them.

But the U.S. military used the same technology to identify people working alongside them. Many, if not most, of those attempting to flee from the Taliban will be on that database. They, too, will find it impossible to escape their own unique bodies.

Of course, they may not have the technological capability to access central U.S. databases, or even to process locally-available data. But according to a report in The Intercept, they could use the data with help from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence service, ISI.

The US military data is not the only information that now puts Afghan lives in danger. Since 2018 the national identity card, or tazkera, has been available in digital form, and applicants have to give biometric data to obtain one. It also includes information about ethnicity and religion. Aid agencies and commercial companies also hold identifiable data which could be dangerous in hostile hands.

We tend to think about the potential benefits of verifiable identity systems, from voting and getting credit to spotting would-be terrorists. We tend to assume that we have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear. We forget too easily that biometric data, once collected, is inescapable. Like the would-be bomber stopped by American soldiers, the gay man or the woman journalist stopped at a Taliban checkpoint will have no place to hide. Their own bodies will betray them.

Accurate and comprehensive identity data is of great value in many contexts. Being matched with your own medical records, not those of somebody with the same name, can save your life. Being able to prove who you are can give you access to participation in public life. But such systems are not without risk. And biometric data makes that risk very personal indeed.


Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Technology is Not the Problem, is published by Harper Collins.

TimandraHarknes

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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

More evidence of Democrat incompetence and irresponsibility. It will not do to cover this appalling, indolent debacle with reference to general policy or the wisdom of withdrawal. Biden’s regime has effectively equipped a deadly enemy of the west and granted it huge power to terrorise an entire population. This in addition to letting down the wider west. How do the modish Pollyannas of international “liberalism” feel now? Still moaning about Trump or trying to blame him for this? You bet – because their opposition was never based on evidence – it crumbled to dust every time. They were simply outraged that their comfortable “narrative” of “progress” – whereby “wars on terror”, “Arab springs” and “open borders” would usher in the global, multicultural nirvana, along with all conceivable “rainbow” rights – was at last subject to scrutiny and challenge. And how utterly hollow and self-seeking it has turned out to be – few rights at all in Kabul today, let alone the “rainbow” variety. As the late Sir Roger Scruton was wont to say, culture counts after all. And the left’s nose is being rubbed in it.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I’m unsure why this topic is becoming a Trump versus anti-Trump battle-point since both men agreed on the principle of pulling out of Afghanistan. We could only hope, I suppose, that Trump’s team would have at least had the competence to remove key personnel before the Taliban takeover, and not after.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

That’s the point. Having constructed a house of cards, you lift your hands and step back with infinite stealth and care.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

No one should be surprised that the Taliban now have access to biometric data, other key data, and much American kit including weaponry that eventually will be used for what the West believes are nefarious purposes. Can we stop with the feigned shock, a la Casablanca?
What needs to be understood is that the current debacle came about because Biden wanted to give a triumphant speech on 9/11 about how he ended the forever war. Correction: the people who are controlling Biden, not Biden himself. Biden looks like he is in a hostage video every time he steps in front of the cameras and has made “joking” references to what he is and is not allowed to do. Allowed by whom? Many people complained about waking up to a new Trump tweet, but Trump never hid in the basement and the world, for better or worse, knew who was in charge (subject to the resistance of the Deep State–a real thing), and what Trump was thinking.
The evacuation of Afghanistan is bad, but is there anyone out there who believed that whenever it came it would be a smooth, orderly process. Just as elections have consequences, so do wars, and when you lose the wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) the winners set the rules. The Taliban have said that quite clearly.
Now the emphasis is on getting “them” out. Who are the “them,” and what do we, the Americans, the West owe them? I didn’t write this–I wish I did–but I read in the WSJ that what “we” owe “them” depends on whether we were there to help them or they were there to help us. It’s a good question that almost no one has even posed, let alone answered.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

The surrender to the Taliban started in 2014. Trump did not attempt to support the Afghan army in the field. The removal of US troop backing with the 2020 drawdown signaled the end. Biden only made it even worse by not moving more quickly to surrender. The loss of Bagram meant the end.