The Taliban Now Controls a U.S.-Made Super-Surveillance System
For 20 years, biometric surveillance served as a substitute for a civil society and the rule of law. Now, those tools are in the hands of the Taliban.
In Kabul, checkpoints are now manned by Taliban fighters using biometric scanners paid for by the American people to hunt down civilians who worked and fought alongside us, in what should be a reckoning for everyone who sold biometric surveillance as a tool for good.
Over the last 20 years, Afghanistan became a technological training ground. It was the place America experimented with new weapons of war, like the Predator drone, often with horrific results. It’s also where we experimented with new forms of surveillance, both militarized and humanitarian. By going community to community, scanning Afghans’ biometric data indiscriminately, the U.S. hoped to create new counter-insurgency tools.
That effort failed to create anything that could stop the Taliban, but it did create things that are incredibly dangerous in the Taliban’s own hands.
Approximately 80 percent of the country, roughly 25 million people, were targeted for inclusion in the U.S. military’s biometric database. Now, the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment can scan Afghans’ fingerprints, faces, and irises to reveal biographical information. The Microsoft-powered device can also tap into a much larger national database of information on millions of Afghans collected by the United States over two decades of war.
With that technology, the Taliban will take control of one of the most sophisticated state surveillance systems on the planet.
It gets worse. While few expected the U.S. military to focus on promoting Afghans’ civil rights, many expected better from the United Nations, particularly the UN Refugee Agency. Instead, the UNHCR drove a nearly two-decade long campaign to require biometric data to receive aid, creating yet another dangerous database for the Taliban to control.
Since 2002, Afghanistan served as a de facto testing ground for new biometric technology, including one of the earliest iris scanning systems in the world. For aid agencies, this was a way to not only confirm the identities of employees, but to track who received food and other staples, blocking recipients from receiving too much food under multiple names. Privacy and civil rights complaints were dismissed as alarmist—as they so often are—but now Afghans will pay the price.
As in countless other low-income countries, biometric surveillance became a substitute for civil society and the rule of law. Yes, fraud and embezzlement are real problems. Yes, we must ensure that aid gets to those most in need. But when we respond to humanitarian crises with dystopian tools like facial recognition and iris scans, we’re undermining the very democratic principles we were supposedly fighting to support.
Every time biometric surveillance became more embedded in Afghan society, the risks for abuse grew, but the pushback was ignored. When facial recognition became the entry fee for casting a ballot, those on the ground and their supporters around the world pushed back, only to once again be ignored.
Today, the elaborate network of biometric surveillance that was largely bought and paid for with American taxpayer dollars is now one of the Taliban’s most terrifying tools. Aid workers, interpreters, and other American allies can get forged papers, they can wipe their phones, but they can’t change their faces. And for those risking their lives to get to the Kabul airport and the last fleeting hope of safety, every Taliban checkpoint brings the risk of a facial scan, and deadly repercussions.
Most countries don’t face the same risk of collapse that the Afghan government did, but the lessons still apply. Whenever we let any company or government capture our biometric data, we give them the one form of information that will haunt us for life. You can change your name but not your iris or DNA.
Even if we trust our own government with such tracking tools (and we should not), what about everyone else who can take the data? Nearly 200,000 Americans’ faces were taken in just one Department of Homeland Security hack in 2019, but that’s infinitesimal compared to the millions of federal employees whose data was stolen in the 2015 Office of Personnel Management hack.
It doesn’t take a governmental collapse to see our biometric data transformed from a tool used by police into one used by criminals and militants. And so far, there is only one surefire way to protect our biometric data and prevent it from being repurposed: not collecting it in the first place.