Days after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, many Afghans who worked for the US are now concerned that their paper documents — attesting to how they helped — could essentially be death sentences if the Taliban were to find them.
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But the fear doesn't stop with paper documents. There are also US military biometric devices, which are high-tech tools that contain sensitive data, like iris scans and fingerprints, tools to distinguish friend from possible enemy, that are in the hands of the Taliban. The Intercept first reported how they could be used to identify Afghans who worked with coalition forces.
Related: This Afghan man who helped US Army Special Forces pleads for help to escape the Taliban: ‘They will kill us’
Welton Chang, who is the chief technology officer at Human Rights First, and is also a former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed the situation with The World's host Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: How did these devices fall into the hands of the Taliban in the first place?
Welton Chang: Our understanding is that these devices were likely originally in the hands of Afghan security forces or other Afghan officials. And during the retreat from bases and other institutions and locations, the devices were obtained by Taliban forces.
So, these are Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, or HIIDE for short. They can access large centralized databases. What kind of information is stored on these devices?
So, the system allows you to do facial recognition, as well. And there is a way to collect fingerprints, iris scans. Given their level of accuracy and the ease of collection, that was a preferred method. You could store some of those biometrics locally on the device itself. And then when you got back to somewhere where you had connectivity, you could hook the device to the larger database where there's a lot more records of other people inside the system.
I was going to ask you, what is the likelihood that the Taliban could just turn on these devices and access the data?
You would need some way of accessing the network where the larger databases are stored. There's still the challenge of locally stored information, either a memory card or some kind of native storage on the device itself. So, a limited number of records may be on the devices. That's concerning as well. I think one other concern looking forward is the other biometric databases that were created by the Afghan government, whether or not the Taliban have access to those, and if they are the legitimate government in Afghanistan, they would have legitimate access to things like the biometric database that was created to identify individuals during the most recent national election.
So, what were these HIIDE devices used by coalition forces for exactly?
They were used for a number of different purposes. One was to enroll detainees into the system so that, in the future, if these individuals were involved in, say, planting an IED or some other violent act, they would be disallowed from activities, such as joining the Afghan security forces and working on coalition bases. So, there are certainly security aspects of the system that were legitimate. These were the best way to understand who it was you were actually talking to and quite accurate in terms of how they were measuring who was in front of them.
So, how concerned are you that these HIIDE devices are now in the hands of the Taliban?
Yeah, I mean, there are a range of human rights concerns. The first is that you could use the data and the devices to systematically find individuals who were previously a part of security forces, the government, worked with the US as an interpreter or as a local national worker on a base. And that systematic process could lead to many people being harmed. You could also use that data to discriminate against people moving forward about getting jobs and that sort of thing. So, there's a lot of concern if, in fact, they have access to these databases.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.