As the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan, seized biometric data is placing millions at risk. People are scrambling to understand the full scope of the mess left behind by international actors who implemented biometric digital identity systems without sufficient safeguards over the last two decades.
Through an open statement, Access Now and 52 other civil society organizations and individuals are calling on the U.S. government, the World Bank, U.N. agencies, and all key actors — including private sector vendors whose tools have been deployed — to take immediate action to restrict and secure biometric and other digital identity databases in Afghanistan, to limit further access by unintended parties, and to provide full transparency into where people’s data may have been exposed.
“Women, LGBTQ+ people, journalists, human rights defenders, refugees, and many others in Afghanistan have been hung out to dry by people and organizations who collected their personal data by aggressively pushing digital identity systems and biometric data capture under the guise of supporting and protecting them,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “Millions are now in a situation beyond their control, and their captured data is now at the mercy of the Taliban.”
The Taliban has seized U.S. military equipment for collecting and identifying individuals using biometric data, and reports indicate they are likely also in control of Afghan Interior Ministry biometric records, voting record digital identity systems, and the e-Tazkira national identity database containing sensitive personal information like ethnicity, nationality, and religion. It remains unclear as to what extent other databases have been compromised.
“These databases put targets on the backs of people who are already in grave danger, and make it extremely difficult for them to access basic services, move from place to place, or communicate with their loved ones without compromising their safety,” said Carolyn Tackett, Deputy Advocacy Director at Access Now. “The international actors who fast-tracked biometrics as a silver bullet solution in Afghanistan — including the producers of these technologies — must now move even more swiftly to reckon with the danger they’ve created and prevent further harm.”
The mandatory and centralized collection of extensive personal data — especially biometric data — is always dangerous. But as turmoil continues to unfold in Afghanistan, the risk these databases present is increasing by the day. It is essential that all responsible parties take immediate action to protect people in Afghanistan whose lives and well-being are threatened by the stockpiling of their sensitive information.
“Around the world, we keep seeing a push to implement centralized and biometric digital identity systems as a catch-all solution for security, inclusion, and beyond. But the situation currently playing out in Afghanistan is a painful example of just how severe the risks can be when the system doesn’t take into account the fragile context of many communities where it could be easily abused,” said Verónica Arroyo, Policy Associate at Access Now.
Today’s civil society statement comes from members of the #WhyID campaign — a global initiative calling on international actors to think carefully about the risks and alternatives before adopting biometrics and other digital identity tools — and other concerned individuals and organizations.
Read the full statement.