Afghans are trying to cover their digital traces by defending themselves against the Taliban. However, simply deleting online data may not be enough for this.
The rise to power of the Taliban group caused not only the massive emigration of Afghan citizens. Many residents of this country fear for their lives, especially if there is a possibility that they are accused of having links with the United States and the military of other countries. That is why thousands of Afghans are faced with the problem of how they can ensure physical safety for themselves and their families.
In this case, simply burning the documents is not enough. After all, using technology, it is possible to identify a citizen of a country who has worked with American specialists. And the digital footprint is just one of the ways to obtain information about a person.
To protect themselves and their families, Afghans delete their social media accounts, and some even create new, fake profiles instead not mentioning their collaboration with the Americans. In recent years, many residents of the country have begun to use the Internet—now there are more than 12 million network users in the country, and in general, the telecommunications sector has become one of the largest sectors of the Afghan economy providing more than 12% of government revenues.
During these years, people have formed rather branched digital footprints that are very difficult to remove today, and not only because a lot of data has accumulated. BBC reporter Sana Safi described how the country's residents are trying to clear their digital history:
"The boys/men—worried sick! Frantically going through phones to delete messages they have sent, music they’ve listened to and pictures they’ve taken. One of them sadly stated: "I had one of the longest phone calls with my girlfriend. God knows when I’m going to see her next."
Wired tells the story of a translator who decided to remove all foreign contacts from his WhatsApp account and reset his phone, removing all traces of his collaboration with the Americans. However, just in case, he sent digital copies of important documents to several people close to him.
His fears are not exaggerated, because it is already known that Taliban militants go to the homes of Afghans to find out what residents of the country have collaborated with foreign governments and non-governmental organizations.
Wired cites Pakistani lawyer Nighat Dad, project manager at Digital Rights Foundation, who explains that residents of the country can encrypt their data or reset devices to factory defaults. Another option is to destroy the gadget so that the data inside cannot be recovered. However, the latter option is not an option, the human rights activist explains:
"Now their gadgets are their hope of salvation... However, if there is a real risk to physical security and they have no other option to ensure the safety of their digital footprint, then such drastic measures are the only choice."
The organization Human Rights First produced a short document on how to destroy one’s digital history—a link to it is being shared on social media among the country's residents. However, this positive step has a problem: not all Afghans can read and understand it, because it is written in English. Human rights activists have begun working on translating this document into Dari and Pashto languages, but this will take time.
Rescue operations or digital chaos: how Afghans are being rescued via WhatsApp and Google Forms
The complete physical destruction of the gadget is also a problem because this decision can deprive its owner and theis family of hope for salvation—the opportunity to leave the country.
Firstly, the destroyed documents proving work for Americans can be important for obtaining a visa, and their removal could mean problems for those who will try to leave the country in the future.
Secondly, with the help of technology, attempts are being made to organize the evacuation of the country's residents who are at risk of staying in Afghanistan. These attempts are being organized through Google Forms, WhatsApp, and closed social media groups. For example, Google Forms were created for those who need to leave the country, as well as for those who want to help pay for charter flights from Kabul. There are also forms for those who did not manage to get to Kabul airport.
Separate work is being done with more specific target groups such as journalists or women who have collaborated with civil society organizations. However, in a panic, there is not always the time and opportunity to make sure that the online form offering to enter personal data is really safe. Google itself emphasizes the unreliability of Google Forms as a tool for saving and transferring data. And in these forms it is offered not only to transfer personal data, but also to send personal identification numbers, scans of documents, including national identity cards.
In addition, WhatsApp is used to discuss issues related to visa solutions. For example, on this platform, representatives of the office of the US Department of State have allegedly created a chat where it is proposed to transfer a long list of documents to those residents of the country who may become participants in the newly created resettlement program. The authors of the chat emphasize that this messenger is more reliable than email.
However, no one can be sure of the reliability of such messages, moreover, even the parent company Facebook cannot protect against fake chats. After all, WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption making it impossible to read messages. Therefore, no one can guarantee not only the fact of the security of data exchange in such chats, but also their reliability, that is, the fact that people send their documents to those who will be engaged in their departure from the country.
Thus, the digital chaos that has formed in the Afghan segment of the Internet is a fertile ground for the interception and use of the data of the country's residents, including for their future persecution.
Critical information in the wrong hands
However, it is not only the personal data of users published on social networks and on the pages of online services that are a problem. Recently it became known that the Taliban were able to seize special devices that had been used for biometric identification of the country’s residents.
This refers to HIIDE (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment)—portable interdepartmental equipment for personal identification. These bioscanners can identify a person based on their biometric data: a fingerprint or an eye scan.
Along with the actual gadget, the rebels gained access to a nationwide database containing information about the person. Thanks to these devices, worth more than $100,000, representatives of the Taliban movement can identify a person and obtain information, for example, whether they worked in government structures under the previous government of Afghanistan.
The dangers of gaining access to such sensitive data have been confirmed by previous use of this information by the Taliban. This refers to the story of 2016, when the rebels stopped a bus, identified all its passengers using a HIIDE device and shot 12 people.
Welton Chang, Chief Technology Officer at Human Rights First, is confident that the Taliban can also use Facebook to find people with long-standing relations with the US military. At least this is how ISIS operated in Iraq.
Protection from outside
To protect the data of the country's citizens who collaborated with American organizations, US government agencies began to remove data about such people from their websites.
For instance, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sent letters to all of its divisions asking them to review their social media accounts and websites and "delete photos and other content that could make Afghan residents vulnerable".
With a similar request, USAID and the US Embassy in Kabul reached out to partners who are still working in Afghanistan. It included a recommendation to destroy paper and electronic records. Now some pages of the American embassy, when trying to open them, display the message "access denied."
Lessons for the future and the threat of technological jihad
Residents of Afghanistan, who, on the one hand, are forced to remove from the digital world because of the threat to their own physical security, found themselves in a paradoxical situation. After all, on the other hand, these actions may not make sense if their data is stored in a national biometric database, and provided that the Taliban took possession of HIIDE devices, they can easily identify these people.
Easy access to personal data and the willingness to persecute those who collaborated with the previous regime make a technological jihad really begin in the country—using technology to search for citizens who can be considered not particularly loyal to the new regime, and their further persecution. The likelihood of such a scenario is very high.
And in this story, no less important will be the behavior of social platforms—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that have now simply reported blocking content with the support of the Taliban movement. The speed of events in Afghanistan did not allow predicting such problems and the need to protect people in the digital space. And now there is not much time left to change some policies for working with the data and accounts of these citizens. Perhaps social platforms need to offer conditional self-destruct buttons for groups of users vulnerable in the case of such conflicts.