With the Taliban having now taken over Afghanistan, there are growing concerns about how it might use the data from the huge biometrics programme that has been left behind. An extensive database of people in Afghanistan was built up during the previous regime, but the quick transition has meant much of it remains in tact.
The US first established a programme to collect the fingerprints, iris scans and facial images of Afghan national security forces after testing prototypes of the system in 2002. The programme’s initial goal was to keep criminals and Taliban insurgents from infiltrating the army and police force. To collect and store this data, the US Department of Defense launched its Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) in 2004.
Over the years, the biometrics initiative has had both coalition and Afghan troops from multiple biometric task forces collecting fingerprint, iris and genetic biometric data from as much of the population as possible, now in the millions. In 2020, the Afghan government launched a biometric system for licensing businesses in order to improve the ease and efficiency with which licences are processed. In January, The Afghan government shared its plans to conduct biometric registration of students and staff at 5000 madrassas around the country.
Some of this biometric equipment is now in the hands of the Taliban, one senior Afghan government official, who worked closely with the biometric gathering for four years, told New Scientist. The equipment includes some specially made portable toolkits consisting of a laptop, digital camera, fingerprint scanner and an iris reader.
“Just think, they now have everything from the police, defence ministry and election commission,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous. They have also seized equipment from facilities used by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence and security agency, he says. “It was left behind in the rush to exit. They have everything.” A US military official confirmed that biometric devices have been seized by the Taliban, but how many isn’t known.
“We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan,” wrote US-based Human Rights First this week. “This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology.”
Fear of reprisals
The worry is that the Taliban will be able to use the biometric equipment and data to carry out reprisals against people who worked in the coalition-backed regime. A former interpreter who worked with US forces in Bagram Air Base, who also had his biometrics taken, says the Taliban is listening in on phone calls and conducting door-to-door searches for those who worked alongside the US in the city of Kandahar. “We just don’t know what they have on us.”
Sean McDonald, who has worked in humanitarian data governance for the past 10 years, says: “The Taliban have a demonstrated interest in hunting, killing and scaring those who have worked with the government and global community.”
Annie Jacobsen, author of First Platoon: A Story of modern war in the age of identity dominance, says that the US has spent more than $8 billion on biometrics programmes in Iraq and Afghanistan and these have failed to produce anything close to a successful outcome in the wars. However, she says that while many biometric tools have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, it doesn’t yet have the equipment to process or use the data.
One officer who has been involved in intelligence gathering in Afghanistan and also wished to remain anonymous says that the safety of Afghan people is paramount. Data collected by the US could be used to get some of them out of the country, he says, as biometric data was widely collected and used in identification cards for people who helped the US.
Though this could have happened sooner, he says. “The US has ample data to have identified long ago who had worked for them and could have prepared for evacuations sooner in my opinion and morally should have.”
The US Department of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.
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