How collecting biometric data can put people in conflict zones at risk

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In 2007, the U.S. military began using a small, portable device to collect and match iris, fingerprints, and facial scans from over 1.5 million Afghans against a biometric database. The device, known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE), was originally developed by the US government as a means of locate the insurgents and other wanted people. Over time, for the sake of efficiency, the system came to include data from Afghans assisting the United States during the war.

Today, HIIDE provides access to a database of biometric and biographical data, including those who have assisted coalition forces. Military equipment and devices – including collected data – are believed to have been captured by the taliban, who took control of Afghanistan.

This development is the latest of many incidents that illustrate why governments and international organizations cannot yet collect and safely use biometric data in conflict zones and in their response to crises.

Build biometric databases

Biometric data, or simply biometrics, are unique physical or behavioral characteristics that can be used to identify a person. These include facial features, vocal patterns, fingerprints, or iris features. Often described as the safest method to verify an individual’s identity, biometric data is used by governments and organizations verify and grant citizens and customers access to personal information, finances and accounts.

According to a Presentation 2007 speak US Army Biometrics Task Force, HIIDE collected and compared fingerprints, iris images, facial photos and biographical contextual data of persons of interest with an internal database.

In a May 2021 Report, anthropologist Nina Toft Djanegara illustrates how the collection and use of biometric data by the US military in Iraq set a precedent for similar efforts in Afghanistan. There, the “US Army Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistan” advised officials to “show creativity and perseverance in their efforts to enlist as many Afghans as possible. The guide recognized that people may be reluctant to provide their personal information and therefore authorities should ‘frame biometric enrollment as a matter of’ protecting their people. ‘

Inspired by the American biometric system, the Afghan government began to work to establish a national identity card, collecting biometric data from university students, soldiers, and passport and driver’s license applications.

While it remains uncertain at this time whether the Taliban have captured HIIDE and whether they can access the aforementioned biometric information of individuals, the risk to those whose data is stored on the system is high. In 2016 and 2017, the Taliban stopped passenger buses across the country for perform biometric checks of all passengers to determine if there were government officials on the bus. These stops have sometimes resulted in hostage-taking and executions led by the Taliban.

Place people at increased risk

We know about biometric technology through mobile features such as Apple’s Touch ID Where Samsung’s fingerprint reader, or by engaging in facial recognition systems when crossing international borders. For many people located in conflict zones or dependent on humanitarian aid in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, biometrics is presented as a secure measure to access resources and services to meet their needs. more basic.

In 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) introduced iris recognition technology during the repatriation of more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees from Pakistan. The technology was used to identify people seeking funds “more than one time. “If the algorithm matched a new entry with a pre-existing iris record, the requester was denied help.

UNHCR was so confident in the use of biometrics that it decided not to allow disputes with the refugees. From March to October 2002, 396,000 bogus asylum seekers were refused assistance. However, as Mirca Madianou, communications specialist, argues, iris recognition has an error rate of two to three percent, suggesting that around 11,800 applicants among the alleged bogus applicants were wrongly denied assistance.

In addition, since 2018, UNHCR has been collecting biometric data from Rohingya refugees. However, reports have recently emerged that UNHCR shared this data with the government of Bangladesh, who then shared it with the government of Myanmar to identify individuals for possible repatriation (all without the consent of the Rohingyas). The Rohingya, like the Afghan refugees, were ordered to register their biometric data to receive and access aid in conflict zones.

UNHCR collects biometric data from refugees in Uganda.

In 2007, as the US government introduced HIIDE in Afghanistan, US Marine Corps walled up Fallujah in Iraq allegedly depriving insurgents of freedom of movement. To enter Fallujah, individuals would need a badge, obtained by exchanging their biometric data. After the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2020, the database remained in place, including all biometric data of those who worked on the bases.

Protection of privacy over time

Enrolling in a biometric database means trusting not only the current organization requesting the data, but any future organization that might take power or have access to the data. In addition, the collection and use of biometric data in conflict zones and response to crises pose increased risks for already vulnerable groups.

While collecting biometric data is useful in specific contexts, it should be done with care. Ensuring the security and privacy of those who may be most at risk and those who are likely to be compromised or made vulnerable is essential. If security and confidentiality cannot be ensured, the collection and use of biometric data should not be deployed in conflict zones and crisis response.

This article from Lucie Nalbandian, researcher, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University, is reissued from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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