TThe Taliban have spoken openly about using US-made digital identity technology to go after Afghans who have worked with the international coalition, posing a major threat to everyone registered with the system. Additionally, extremists now also have access to and control over digital identification systems and technologies built through international aid support.
These include the e-Tazkira, a biometric identity card used by the Afghanistan National Statistics and Information Authority, which includes fingerprints, iris scanners, and a photograph, as well as voter registration databases. It also includes the Afghan personnel and payment system, which are used by the interior and defense ministries to pay the army and police.
For Afghans and the broader community working on digital identification for development, this means that the Taliban have sensitive personal information that they have said will be used to target those they consider enemies or threats. While some Afghans are frantically trying to erase any trace of digital activity, in official databases, deleting users is not an option.
This is another wake-up call that illustrates the risks that new digital technologies can pose when they end up in the wrong hands and for the development community. It reminds those who work on digital identity and digital public infrastructure for development, that the benefits of identification systems, enshrined in the sustainable development goal 16.9, right to legal identity – should never be done at the expense of individual safety.
So far, the efforts of the international development community have focused on adoption and inclusion, the fastest and cheapest ways to make people visible to the state in order to manage access to rights and entitlements. The benefits of inclusion in digital identification are broad, whether they allow access to health and social services, enroll a child in school, open a bank account or get a mobile phone, get a job, vote or register. a company.
But protection must be a higher priority. Like all technologies, digital identity systems are neither good nor bad, but never neutral, and they amplify the power of those who control them. No technology is going to change actors like the Taliban’s efforts to target those they want to find. But the deployment of digital identity systems must be smarter to understand the political interests and risks that shape the contexts in which those systems are used.
Even if this problem is addressed, identification systems will continue to be implemented in places where political risks are obvious, as in Afghanistan. We need to focus on emerging approaches to data management and mitigate the misuse of these technologies.
For example, we must embrace the “data minimization principle” – the idea that only necessary personal data should be collected and retained. We also need an approach that minimizes centralized data collection and gives people more control. Countries like Germany, Spain and the Netherlands are development of identification systems based on digital wallets – that decentralize the storage and control of data – while the EU Covid Vaccine Passport uses a similar model.
While there are isolated examples of efforts to develop improved approaches to these systems and bring innovation to better protect ourselves, there is no established and independent body of knowledge. There is a wealth of experience in various governments, companies and associations around the world, in specialized newsletter groups and online publications that could help to reflect on this and develop policy positions. But there is a gap: the need for independent, critical research and advisory services on this important topic. And in particular for development donors, to support decision-making and investment that can help promote the benefits of digital identification while ensuring that risks are mitigated.
Emrys Schoemaker is a researcher and strategist at Caribou Digital, where his work focuses on the interaction between digital technologies and social, political and economic change.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism