Stranded Afghans Delete Social Media as Taliban Seizes US Surveillance Equipment

By Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva covers national security issues for The Epoch Times. His reporting background also includes cybersecurity, crime and offshore finance – including three years as a reporter in the British Virgin Islands and two years in the Cayman Islands. Contact him at ken.silva@epochtimes.us
August 20, 2021 Updated: August 22, 2021

Concerned that they could be targeted by Taliban online surveillance operations, U.S. Afghan allies are reportedly scrambling in droves to delete their social media profiles. Meanwhile, privacy advocates are raising concerns that the U.S. data program possibly inherited by the Taliban could lead to blowback threatening civil liberties in the United States.

The New York-based group Human Rights First announced on Aug. 16 that Taliban fighters had captured U.S. surveillance tools. Those devices, known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE), were used by soldiers to scan the biometrics of Afghans to match fingerprints on improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and for other such forensic investigations.

“We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan, including some left behind by coalition military forces,” the human rights group said in a statement. “This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology.”

The Human Rights First advisory included multilingual guides for Afghan allies on protecting their digital identities.

The warning corresponds with numerous reports of Afghans deleting their social media profiles. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reportedly circulated emails to its partners in Afghanistan advising them to “remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable.”

Former U.S. Army prosecutor John Maher told The Epoch Times that this specific warning about the Taliban taking HIIDE equipment is probably overblown.

Maher, who worked with the Afghan biometrics program during his time as program manager of the Justice Center in Parwan, said that HIIDE devices are password-protected. And after a soldier uses the device and uploads the data at the central database, protocol says to wipe the device clean, according to Maher.

“Even if [Taliban] can get into that device, they’ll get an unclassified list of their own people,” said Maher, who has also used Afghan biometric evidence in the successful—though controversial—campaign to have President Donald Trump pardon a soldier convicted of killing civilians.

On the wider issue of the Taliban conducting surveillance operations to locate their enemies, Maher said he thinks they would have to be aided by more sophisticated governments such as China or Iran.

“I’m skeptical that Taliban are that sophisticated,” said Maher, who also told The Epoch Times that he’s been helping Afghan allies leave the country via his U.S.–Afghan firm Misbah Maher Consultancy.

While the HIIDE devices may not pose a risk to Afghans, Taliban fighters have previously used biometric systems to target their enemies. In 2016, for example, they reportedly used a government database to check whether bus passengers were security force members, according to a 2016 TOLOnews report.

American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Klon Kitchen said the security risks posed by the abandoned U.S. surveillance equipment are just one of the many consequences of a sloppy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A proper withdrawal would have entailed deleting all digital files in U.S. facilities and servers in Afghanistan, destroying all computers and other physical equipment, and working with tech companies and social media platforms to protect Afghan identities, Klon said in his weekly newsletter.

Meanwhile, the biometric information collected on tens of millions of Afghans remains on U.S. government databases, to potentially be used by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies for investigations, according to Maher.

“It’s interagency data now,” he said.

Officials with the Department of Defense (DoD) didn’t respond to numerous Epoch Times inquiries about the status and security of the Afghan data, including whether any centralized databases remain in Afghanistan.

Societal Implications

More broadly, the DoD’s biometrics program has sparked discussion about the role such technology should play in society.

“It’s nothing more complicated than fingerprint data, which is over 100 years old,” Maher said of the concerns about government biometrics collection.

Proponents of biometric programs point to the crime-fighting benefits. Along with the countless cases solved by fingerprint collection, forensic experts have made breakthroughs on DNA analysis—helping law enforcers solve mysteries such as the “Golden State Killer” case.

They also say that collecting biometric data on citizens allows governments to establish digital identities—allowing people to more easily travel, open bank accounts, receive medical care, and access other social services.

“Imagine a world where onboarding does not take five days but only four hours. Where to prove you are eligible to receive your UN pension, it only takes two minutes from the smartphone in the palm of your hand, compared to two months using the old regular post,” a United Nations website stated, touting the U.N. Digital ID. “The U.N. Digital ID is the same underlying engine that will power all these and many other use cases.”

However, civil liberties and privacy advocates have raised concerns about governments using biometrics for repression.

In her book on the DoD’s biometrics project, “First Platoon,” author Annie Jacobsen compared the Afghan program to the Chinese Communist Party’s “Physicals for All” program foisted on the Uyghur Muslims in China.

“In addition to the DNA samples, the Physicals for All program netted biometrics on 36 million Uyghur Chinese—including iris scans, facial images, voice prints, and more,” Jacobsen wrote.

“Human rights groups are right to call this out, but they have yet to acknowledge that this Physicals for All program is modeled directly after the Pentagon program in Afghanistan.”

Jacobsen argued that the Afghan program could come to the United States in the form of contact tracing and vaccine passport technology. She pointed out that Palantir, the same company that built software for the Afghan program, is now working with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) “to bring disparate data sets together and provide better visibility to HHS on the spread of COVID.”

“The argument that what is happening in China—that is, the mandatory data-banking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA—could never happen in America is an optimistic one,” she wrote. “The pandemic of 2020 has resulted in enthusiasm for government-led contact-tracing programs in the U.S., opening the door for military-grade programs to data-bank biodata of Americans.

“Because disease lies at the center of this new threat, the reality that citizens’ DNA cell samples are of interest to the government is no longer science fiction.”

Antiwar activist Scott Horton agreed with Jacobsen’s thesis, arguing that domestic blowback is the predictable consequence of overseas wars.

“Just look at the Patriot Act: That was supposed to protect us from terrorists, and yet they use it all the time on everybody,” he said.

This time, it’s conservatives who could be victims of the blowback as U.S. federal agencies ramp up their domestic surveillance activities, said Horton, editorial director of antiwar.com and author of “Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.”

“You know, the people who supported the war are now taking the brunt,” Horton told The Epoch Times.

“It’s the war on terror come home. That’s what always happens.”

Ken Silva
Ken Silva
Ken Silva covers national security issues for The Epoch Times. His reporting background also includes cybersecurity, crime and offshore finance – including three years as a reporter in the British Virgin Islands and two years in the Cayman Islands. Contact him at ken.silva@epochtimes.us