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, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.