Over two decades, the US and its allies spent hundreds of millions of dollars building databases for the Afghan people. The nobly stated goal: Promote law and order and government accountability and modernise a war-ravaged land. But in the Taliban’s lightning seizure of power (they have now seized much of the Panjshir valley, too, the last province not in their control), most of that digital apparatus—including biometrics for verifying identities—apparently fell into the Islamists’ hands. Built with few data-protection safeguards, it risks becoming the high-tech jackboots of a surveillance state. As the Taliban get their governing feet, there are worries it will be used for social control and to punish perceived foes. Since Kabul fell on August 15, indications have emerged that government data may have been used in Taliban efforts to identify and intimidate Afghans who worked with US forces. People are getting ominous and threatening phone calls, texts and WhatsApp messages. A 27-year-old US contractor in Kabul told The Associated Press he and co-workers who developed a US-funded database used to manage army and police payrolls got phone calls summoning them to the defence ministry. He is in hiding and changing his location daily, he said.
Before the US pullout, sensitive database was erased with military-grade data-wiping software. Similarly, 20 years of data collected from telecommunications and internet intercepts since 2001 by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency were wiped clean. But crucial databases remained—data with iris scans and fingerprints for about nine million Afghans. Ali Karimi, a University of Pennsylvania scholar, worries the databases will give the rigid fundamentalist theocrats “the same capability as an average US government agency when it comes to surveillance and interception”.In victory, the Taliban’s leaders say they are not interested in retribution. Restoring international aid and getting foreign-held assets unfrozen are a priority. There are few signs of the draconian restrictions—especially on women—they imposed when they ruled from 1996 to 2001.
The Taliban are on notice that the world will be watching how they wield the data. Experts expect Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service, long the Taliban’s patron, to render technical assistance. Chinese, Russian and Iranian intelligence also may offer such services. Uncertain for the moment is the fate of one of the most sensitive databases, the one used to pay soldiers and police. The Afghan Personnel and Pay System has data on more than 7,00,000 security forces members dating back 40 years, said a senior security official from the fallen government.