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SECURITY IMPLICATIONS OF THE TALIBAN'S USE OF BIOMETRIC DEVICES

Updated: Apr 3

Alberto Suarez, Sofia Pantoula, CENTCOM Team; Marina Tovar, Patrianna Napoleon, Counterintelligence and Cyber (CICYBER) Team

Week of Monday, December 27, 2021


US Marine scanning an Afghan during counter-insurgency operations[1]


The former Afghan Ministry of Interior and the US Department of Defense created the Afghan Personnel Pay System (APPS), the Afghan Automatic Biometric Identification System (AABIS), and employed the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) devices, each set up in 2016, 2004, and 2007 respectively.[2] The Afghan government and the US aimed to use HIIDE devices to target terrorists and insurgents through the data collected, the AABIS to provide Afghan citizens with services, and the APPS to pay the national army and police.[3] The databases contain sensitive personal information about Afghan citizens, very likely allowing the Taliban to enforce discriminatory measures against minorities and women, likely resulting in human rights abuses. The APPS database contains detailed information about the Afghan police and national army.[4] This information will very likely enable the Taliban to prosecute and execute former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and their relatives. Relatives of ANDSF members are likely to attempt to escape Taliban reprisals, likely resulting in a refugee wave towards Europe or neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan. The use of HIIDE devices will very likely allow the Taliban to locate, prosecute, and attack Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) members, likely resulting in ISIS-K reprisals heightening security concerns in Afghanistan.


The former Afghan Ministry of Interior and the US Department of Defense created the APPS and the AABIS to identify terrorists and insurgents, provide services to citizens, and reduce payroll fraud in the national army and police.[5] The Taliban regaining control over Afghanistan very likely turns the biometric databases into a security threat for former government personnel and citizens. The Taliban will very likely use these databases to track and persecute minorities and former ANDSF members while safeguarding information related to their own activities. There is a roughly even chance the Taliban will collaborate with the Pakistani Taliban to locate individuals of interest who have likely fled to Pakistan. The Taliban are also likely to offer rewards to Afghan citizens in the form of food or employment in exchange for information on former ANDSF members. This measure is likely to be effective as the lack of food and jobs will very likely push people to collaborate with the Taliban to survive.


The Taliban have seized US biometrics devices like HIIDE, which collected iris scans and fingerprints to enable the identification of Afghan citizens.[6] The Taliban utilized HIIDE in a 2016 attack in Kunduz, Afghanistan, likely acquiring the device from their infiltration of Afghan security forces in 2012.[7] The security threat is critical as it is unlikely data retention and deletion protocols were established, very likely due to the overestimation of the Afghan government’s ability to provide stability and protect sensitive data after the US withdrawal. The quick Taliban takeover likely hindered the deletion of the databases and any data stored separately. There is roughly even chance that hard copies of the data exist in the former government’s offices, but information on whether such copies exist is likely restricted. In the form of hard copies, devices, or databases, it is almost certain that the Taliban are the sole owners of the data collected. This will very likely reinforce the Taliban's capabilities to identify and execute former ANDSF members, almost certainly resulting in human rights abuses.


On November 30, 2021, the Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the disappearance and execution of 100 former ANDSF members since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, 2021.[8] Biometric data on former Afghan government employees' families and residency was very likely used to facilitate the search and execution of ANSDF intelligence personnel and ethnic paramilitary group members such as the Shia Afghan Hazaras. The Taliban will very likely continue to target these groups as they are almost certainly viewed as collaborators with the former Afghan government and a threat to Taliban control. Fear amongst the families of former ANDSF members will very likely trigger a refugee wave towards neighboring States, such as Iran and Pakistan. Flows of refugees are likely to cause a humanitarian crisis in neighboring countries as they are very unlikely to be politically and economically prepared for a new refugee wave.


In December 2021, 15 EU Member States agreed to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees.[9] Afghan refugees will likely emigrate to Europe, likely attracted by the possibility of economic and political stability. Turkey and Iran will almost certainly act as transit countries for refugees migrating towards Europe. Refugee flows towards EU States will likely exacerbate the current EU refugee crisis and raise political tensions between the EU, Turkey, and Iran. Turkey and Iran are unlikely to stem the flow of refugees destined for Europe if they cannot exact political concessions from the EU. Turkey is likely to demand eligibility for the 2022 European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), while Iran is likely to demand an end to the EU sanctions against Iran over human rights abuses. Turkish and Iranian use of refugees as political leverage will very likely delay humanitarian aid to refugees, negatively impacting their living conditions and almost certainly resulting in a humanitarian crisis.


On December 28, 2021, the Taliban responded to a protest supporting women's rights to education, employment, and social freedom in Kabul with gunfire.[10] Biometric data of married Afghan women who worked for the former government will very likely aid the Taliban in enforcing further discriminatory measures against them.[11] The Taliban are likely to use violence against women whose biometric data appear in the databases, as seen in the dissolution of the protest with gunfire. There is a roughly even chance that the Taliban will threaten reprisals against these women’s family members. The male relatives of women who do not conform to the Taliban’s orders will likely be threatened as well. The Taliban’s new capabilities for exhaustive monitoring and the use of violence against women will very likely worsen their living conditions.


Since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-K has bombed mosques throughout the country and carried out attacks in Kabul.[12] The Taliban claim to have captured 600 ISIS-K militants since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.[13] The Taliban will very likely use the data collected on APPS, AABIS, and HIDE databases to identify 1,800 ISIS-K militants that were released from Kabul prisons before the Taliban takeover.[14] Attacks by ISIS-K almost certainly undermine the Taliban’s claims of providing national security. This is likely to incite further ISIS-K attacks as it is almost certain that ISIS-K will attempt to debilitate the Taliban's control of the country, likely resulting in widespread civil unrest. Citizens questioning Taliban rule could likely lead to protests calling for a change of government. Protests would likely be met with violence by the Taliban, almost certainly resulting in civilian casualties.


In August 2021, the US-based advocacy group Human Rights First translated a guide on evading biometrics into Pashto and Dari, recommending using makeup and looking down when being scanned as ways to obscure facial recognition.[15] The guide will likely help Afghan citizens avoid detection by the Taliban’s biometric devices. Obstruction of facial recognition efforts is likely to slow down the identification of Afghans at risk of Taliban reprisals. Afghans who successfully avoided being identified will likely share biometric evasion techniques with other potential targets. The dissemination of these techniques will likely result in ineffective use of biometric devices to identify and persecute Afghan citizens, likely forcing the Taliban to employ alternative sources of identification or improve existing ones.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that agencies, organizations, and companies (AOCs) and the international community develop new measures to protect the biometric data of people in conflict zones who are likely to be victims of human rights abuses. New measures like human rights education programs and the establishment of partnerships with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will likely aid individuals in vulnerable situations. CTG recommends the establishment of backup databases and deletion plans for similar databases used by the United States military in Iraq and Syria, where iris and fingerprints scans have been used to identify drivers in Erbil, Iraq.[16] Creating backup databases and deletion and data retention policies will very likely prevent data from being accessed by terrorist groups. The US military should also consider plans to erase databases to prevent sensitive information on former US allies from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, as in the case of Afghanistan.


CTG’s CENTCOM and the Counterintelligence and Cyber (CICYBER) Teams will continue to monitor developments in the Taliban’s use of biometrics and its security implications. The CENTCOM and CICYBER Teams will actively cooperate with other regional and specialty teams to monitor the occurrence and developments of this threat and its implications in different geographical regions. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) officers will continue to monitor the Taliban’s activity throughout the region and provide up-to-date reports about this threat.


 

[1] Lance Cpl. Andrew Derr, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, scans an Afghan man's retinas with the Biometric Enrollment and Screening Device while conducting counter-insurgency operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 17.”, by Cpl Alejandro Pena U.S. Marine Corps licensed under Public Domain

[2] CRISIS IN KABUL This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban, MIT Technology Review, August 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/30/1033941/afghanistan-biometric-databases-us-military-40-data-points/

[3] Conference maps the way ahead for biometrics in Afghanistan, U.S. Central Command, October 2010, https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/903841/conference-maps-the-way-ahead-for-biometrics-in-afghanistan/

[4] Ibid

[5] CRISIS IN KABUL This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban, MIT Technology Review, August 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/08/30/1033941/afghanistan-biometric-databases-us-military-40-data-points/

[6] Taliban Used Biometric System During Kunduz Kidnapping, Tolo News, June 2016, https://tolonews.com/afghanistan/taliban-used-biometric-system-during-kunduz-kidnapping

[7] Afghan army says Taliban infiltration very sophisticated, Reuters, March 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-infiltration-idUSTRE82208H20120303

[8] “No Forgiveness for People Like You” - Executions and Enforced Disappearances in Afghanistan under the Taliban, Human Rights Watch, November 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/11/30/no-forgiveness-people-you/executions-and-enforced-disappearances-afghanistan#

[9] EU countries agree to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees, Al Jazeera, December 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/9/eu-member-states-agree-to-take-in-40000-afghan-asylum-seekers

[10] Afghan Women Protest Over New Restrictions, Tolo News, December 2021, https://tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan-176075

[11] The fate of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Brookings Institution, September 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/essay/the-fate-of-womens-rights-in-afghanistan/

[12] Deadly blast hit Afghan capital Kabul, Al Jazeera, December 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/10/bomb-blast-kills-two-civilians-on-minibus-in-afghanistans-kabul

[13] Afghan Taliban Claim to Have Captured 600 IS Militants, VOA News, November 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-claim-capturing-600-islamic-state-militants/6307815.html

[14] Ibid

[15] Steps to Protect Your Online Identity from the Taliban: Digital History and Evading Biometrics Abuses, Human Rights First, August 2021, https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/resource/steps-protect-your-online-identity-taliban-digital-history-and-evading-biometrics-abuses

[16] Soldiers use biometrics to vet drivers sustaining Syrian logistics ops, U.S. Army, February 2021, https://www.army.mil/article/243454/soldiers_use_biometrics_to_vet_drivers_sustaining_syrian_logistics_ops

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