The Taliban takeover in Kabul, the frantic evacuation efforts of foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans, and the fear among those left behind of being targeted by the new regime are shining a spotlight on the double-edged nature of government data collection as well as digital communication tools in times of crisis.
“We can only be reached by phone from now on. We’re destroying the IT. Have a nice Sunday. Over.” So read the last cable sent from Jan Hendrik van Thiel, Deputy Chief of Mission at the German Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, to Berlin, according to a report in Der Spiegel. As the ultra-conservative Taliban begins its rule after taking over and desperate Afghans seek to flee the country, the new regime has forced a digital ethics reckoning, especially when it comes to sensitive data and the uses and abuses of social media.
Troves of data, an artifact of the 20-year U.S. occupation, are stored in Afghanistan. Though most of the classified information was likely already flown out or destroyed, sensitive information almost certainly remains in both paper and digital forms, and could be combined with other information to pose a security threat to the Afghans who worked with NATO allies. Yet, as Nema Milaninia writes for Just Security, that data is a double-edged sword. Its destruction could be a blow to accountability and make it more difficult for international governing organizations, such as the United Nations or International Criminal Court, to conduct a full accounting of the situation.
The human rights problems created by data are not limited to bureaucratic information or government documentation. The American military and Afghan government have collected biometric information for years, using handheld devices called HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment) to build out a database used both for identifying would-be terrorists and confirming the identities of locals and contractors working with the military. As the Taliban has reportedly seized US military facial recognition systems, many are worried that this data will make it easier for the militant Islamic group to find and retaliate against those who aided the U.S.
Privacy experts warn of abuse of biometric systems
For some, this is an “I told you so” moment. For years, privacy experts warned that collecting biometric data, and similar efforts such as mandating digital identity cards, could leave marginalized groups or refugees more vulnerable. "Not enough care is taken by multilateral and development aid agencies to understand the local context—who can use the data, and if it can be used to perpetuate inequities and discrimination," Raman Jit Singh Chima of digital rights group Access Now tells Rappler. Such concerns have also been raised about Aadhaar, India’s biometric ID system, as well as Kenya’s “Huduma Namba” program, so Afghanistan’s situation is likely to serve as a warning for other projects in development around the globe.
Even when the data is not biometric, many Afghans are now struggling with whether to erase their digital lives. Despite the Taliban’s claims that it will forgive those who fought them and respect the rights of women, many are skeptical (and believe that women, in particular, could be at risk due to the Taliban’s repressive views on gender roles). Fears remain that any type of digital breadcrumb—such as, say, a photo of someone working alongside a representative from a western NGO—could put Afghans in line for punishment. As Chris Stokel-Walker notes, the Taliban effectively banned pop music in Afghanistan in the 1990s, so “even the existence of the Spotify logo on a phone home screen could prove fatal.”
Social media platforms struggle with approach to Taliban
As the rest of the world watches the crisis unfold, many are asking about the role that social media has played during the crisis. Services like WhatsApp have helped facilitate evacuations of Afghans, but it can also make them identifiable targets. And the Taliban’s own presence on social media is also raising questions about the obligations of platforms. The Taliban joined Twitter in 2011, then joined WhatsApp and Telegram in 2015. In the years since, the group has waged an internet warfare campaign, sharing their stories through social media and relying on clever propaganda—it has even gone on Clubhouse—to spread its message, along the way inspiring far-right groups worldwide.
In theory, these platforms do not welcome the Taliban. It was long ago designated a dangerous organization by both Facebook and YouTube, though Twitter does not have a blanket ban against the group. In practice, banning Taliban content is not as simple.
“But while a lot of Taliban propaganda hasn’t been on these platforms, Taliban fighters have still had a presence,” explains Emerson T. Brooking, senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council. “It’s because the Taliban is an insurgency. That makes it definitionally very difficult to distinguish insurgent fighters from the population at large.”
Though these platforms have not necessarily been responsible for the Taliban’s momentum, says Brooking, platform companies are now struggling with how to deal with the Taliban in its new role. It is unclear, for instance, whether the Taliban will be allowed control over the official Facebook and Twitter accounts of the government of Afghanistan, a move that could be seen as legitimizing the group and its takeover.
Twitter has said that it will take action against accounts that violate rules prohibiting violent content, while YouTube will terminate Taliban-linked accounts due to its interpretation of U.S. sanctions law. A Facebook spokesperson told The Verge that it “does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations.”