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The Real Threat To US Supporters In Afghanistan May Be The US-Funded Biometric Database Compiled By Their Former Government

DATE POSTED:September 2, 2021

American armed forces entered Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, bringing with them weapons, vehicles, and a vast amount of war tech. After 20 years, we're finally out of Afghanistan, but much of what the US military brought to the country has been left behind.

Obviously, the best way to prevent this eventual outcome was no longer an option after October 7, 2001. Clean exits are impossible. The solution is to never enter. What was left behind to be used by the Afghanistan military (or simply because it was logistically impossible to remove) is now mostly in the hands of the Taliban.

As was reported earlier, devices used for the collection of biometric data are now possessed by the Taliban. Originally tasked with collecting data to be used to recognize and track insurgents and terrorists, the devices' purpose expanded to include friendly locals who worked with the US military to help it identify and hunt down insurgents and terrorists.

The devices themselves may be of limited value, at least in terms of containing data the Taliban can use to identify local allies of the now-departed US military. That's according to this new report from MIT Technology Review.

As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in mid-August, declaring the end of two decades of war, reports quickly circulated that they had also captured US military biometric devices used to collect data such as iris scans, fingerprints, and facial images. Some feared that the machines, known as HIIDE, could be used to help identify Afghans who had supported coalition forces.

According to experts speaking to MIT Technology Review, however, these devices actually provide only limited access to biometric data, which is held remotely on secure servers.

Good news? Well, maybe if the Taliban's intel acquisition plans were limited to whatever it can recover from these biometric scanners. Unfortunately, a whole lot more information on Afghan residents who aided the US and/or fought the Taliban is contained in Afghan government databases, some of which were constructed with the US government's help. Those are almost certainly already in the Taliban's control.

MIT Technology Review spoke to two individuals familiar with one of these systems, a US-funded database known as APPS, the Afghan Personnel and Pay System. Used by both the Afghan Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense to pay the national army and police, it is arguably the most sensitive system of its kind in the country, going into extreme levels of detail about security personnel and their extended networks.

A rough equivalent of the US government's Office of Personnel Management, the database was created to cut down on fraud by collecting verifiable info on Afghanistan military members, gradually reducing the number of paychecks issued to nonexistent soldiers. But the database contains far more information than the OPM's stash.

[I]t also contains details on the individuals’ military specialty and career trajectory, as well as sensitive relational data such as the names of their father, uncles, and grandfathers, as well as the names of the two tribal elders per recruit who served as guarantors for their enlistment.

The Tablian's possession of this information doesn't just threaten the lives of soldiers who fought against the Taliban during the war, but their extended families. A lot of this is tied to biometric markers that can't be altered (or at least not altered easily or painlessly) like fingerprints and retina scans. Adding the biometric scanners to access to government databases is a potent combination. While the biometric scanners may not allow the Taliban to connect to US-controlled servers containing sensitive info, they can be used to collect more biometric data, which the Taliban can then attempt to match to records contained in this comprehensive database.

If there's a silver lining, it's that this database is, like a lot of things created by huge bureaucracies, kind of lousy.

Ultimately, some experts say the fact that Afghan government databases were not very interoperable may actually be a saving grace if the Taliban do try to use the data. “I suspect that the APPS still doesn’t work that well, which is probably a good thing in light of recent events,” said Dan Grazier, a veteran who works at watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, by email.

This, too, was an inevitability of the extended conflict. Governments and their militaries are extremely interested in both their allies and their enemies. Amassing vast amounts of data was always going to be the answer. But this is how everything ends when a war effort ends in a loss after 20 years. The bad guys get all the stuff the good guys left behind. And in this day and age, the most powerful tools are portable, electronic, and bursting with information that makes it so much easier to mop up what's left of the resistance.