Afghan panic over digital history prompts rethinking data collection


Privacy experts warn that the use by the United Nations and development agencies of biometric data and digital ID cards poses risks to refugees and other vulnerable groups.

* Aid agencies say biometrics are accurate and efficient

* Privacy groups say data not adequately protected can be misused

* The impacts on human rights are not fully understood

By Rina Chandran

Aug. 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Concerns over sensitive data falling into the hands of the Taliban after their takeover of Afghanistan has reignited debate among privacy experts over the ethics of data collection. data from aid agencies and multilateral institutions.

As insurgents entered the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, residents feared that biometric databases maintained by aid agencies and security forces could be used to track and target them.

Privacy experts have long warned that the collection of biometric data by the United Nations and development agencies and the imposition of digital ID cards increases risks for refugees and other vulnerable groups.

“Multilateral and development aid agencies are not paying enough attention to understanding the local context – who can use the data, and if it can be used to perpetuate inequality and discrimination,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima of the group. Access Now Digital Rights Advocate.

“In the case of Afghanistan, it is particularly shocking, as these agencies knew the troubled history of the country and should have prepared for the worst-case scenario with lessons learned in Myanmar and elsewhere,” said Chima, director of the country. regional policy.

The Taliban have seized US military biometric devices which contained data such as iris scans and fingerprints, and biographical information that could help identify Afghans “who aided coalition forces,” The Intercept reported this week.

Even the national digital identification, the tazkira, defended by the World Bank since 2018 and compulsory to access public services and jobs and to vote, can expose vulnerable ethnic groups, Chima told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The World Bank has defended the ID, saying that “progress in development is not possible when a large part of the population does not officially exist. Therefore, providing a legal identity to all is essential for development.” .


The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) quickly adopted biometric technology, testing an iris recognition system for the first time among Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in 2002.

The system – typically a retinal scan and fingerprints – has been rolled out in several other countries and used in UNHCR’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

UNHCR has noted biometric registration enables more accurate counting and identification of refugees, ensures more efficient registration and delivery of aid, and helps prevent fraud.

But critics point to technical challenges, such as uneven connectivity and fake facial recognition matches, and say that refugee biometric registries can be misused by host countries that request access for security reasons and by unauthorized users.

There is a risk that “sensitive biometric data on refugees will be shared and used by donor states in ways other than that which advances humanitarian goals,” said Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, security researcher at the University of Copenhagen.

“Amid good intentions, the use of biometric technology in the management of humanitarian refugees can pose various risks to refugee populations,” with their data being accessed without their knowledge or consent, she said.

In June, Human Rights Watch said UNHCR shared information on Rohingya refugees without their consent with the host country, Bangladesh, who shared it with Myanmar – the country they had fled from – to verify people for possible repatriation.

The rights group said UNHCR’s data collection practices “run counter to the agency’s own policies and put refugees at greater risk.”

In response, UNHCR said in a press release that “specific steps were taken to mitigate potential risks” in data sharing and that refugees were “specifically asked if they had given consent to share their data” with the two governments.


Privacy experts have also long questioned the impacts of collecting biometric data for so-called counterterrorism programs from Somalia to Palestine, as mandated by the Security Council of the United States. ‘UN.

The United States introduced biometric systems in Iraq and Afghanistan to distinguish insurgents from civilians “without prior assessment of its impact on human rights and without the necessary safeguards to prevent its abuse.” Privacy International said in May.

As panicked Kabul residents attempted to flee this week, the Taliban said they would not seek revenge on former soldiers and government officials, or contractors and translators who worked for international forces.

Nonetheless, aid agencies and government authorities should carefully monitor identity or database systems and hide or restrict access to them immediately, Chima said.

Fears that the Taliban could use this data to target militants or people in the previous government underscore the need for an urgent conversation about the use of biometric technology in the fight against terrorism or for border control, say the officials. rights activists.

“Marginalized and vulnerable groups are disproportionately exposed, especially racial, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees and migrants, and those living in conflict zones,” said Marlena Wisniak, European Center for Law non-profit.

“Unfortunately, these negative impacts are not yet fully recognized and addressed,” said Wisniak, senior legal consultant.


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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: // news

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