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Griffin on Tech: When your digital footprint could prove deadly

Peter Griffin, Editor. 03 September 2021, 4:07 pm

This week saw the last US troops leaving Kabul Airport, officially ending a 20-year war that cost the United States alone an estimated US$2.3 trillion and the lives of 2,448 military personnel.

Our own military ran a successful operation to evacuate hundreds of New Zealanders as well as translators who had assisted our forces during their time supporting the war in Afghanistan. 

But the horrifying images of Afghans standing in the filthy wastewater trench outside Kabul Airport, desperate to get a place on a flight out of the country, say it all.

Many who wanted to get out, fearful of their faith at the hands of the new Taliban regime, were left behind. They now face an uncertain future to say the least. Many of them, who have grown up in the digital age and engaged with social media and online communication tools just like us, will be thinking about their digital footprint.

History

The Taliban now controls the country's internet providers and telecommunications networks. Its newly appointed officials preside over digital government tax, health and criminal records. The Afghanistan Government, with assistance from foreign allies, spent the last decade digitising its systems, introducing a digital identity scheme and biometrics. 

"We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan," the Human Rights First group reported last week.

"This technology is likely to include access to a database with fingerprints and iris scans, and include facial recognition technology."

Delete all

Location data, call logs, text message histories are all up for grabs. What are terrified company workers supposed to do when a Taliban fighter with an AK-47 slung around his neck comes calling demanding customer records?

The fear now is that the Taliban will use these digital tools to track down and deal to those it sees as its enemies. As the Islamic fundamentalist group's soldiers closed in on Kabul, Afghans were desperately attempting to erase their social media profiles and history of posts, likes and shares. 

For those who were vocally against the Taliban in recent years, a mocking Instagram post or retweet of a satirical cartoon could come back to haunt them in the worst possible way. The perception of the Taliban, in the West at least, may well be of a group of violent, largely uneducated group of religious zealots, intolerant of anything not enshrined in Sharia law. 

But as this report from the Atlantic Council points out, a Taliban elite has become very sophisticated in its use of digital channels and social media since it was booted out of Kabul shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks back in 2001. Taliban fighters recorded their progress on smartphones as they took cities and provinces on the way to the capital.

"A closer review of the group's history and the conflict in Afghanistan reveals that the Taliban has waged-and now won-a singular, focused, twenty-year information war. While the platforms and methods of this conflict have evolved, the Taliban's Islamic fundamentalist goals have not," the Atlantic Council notes.

Those who swapped messages on Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Signal bitterly condemning the Taliban will breathe a little easier - it's unlikely the Taliban can access those messages. Indeed, Facebook rolled out a tool for Afghanistan-based users that allows them to freeze access to their accounts with a single click, meaning posts and photos can't be accessed beyond their existing network of friends.  

Ironically, Facebook owns WhatsApp, which enjoys enthusiastic usage by the Taliban. It's not just critical comments that could get people in trouble. There's widespread scepticism that the new "Taliban 2.0" will respect the human rights and freedoms enjoyed by Afghans without question just a few weeks ago.

A selfie of a Muslim woman wearing jeans and a tank top or the posting of a gay pride badge may be enough to warrant a visit from a Taliban official if the group lives up to its previous form. 

Screenshot 2021-09-02 at 10.02.11 AM.png

A New Zealand passport and a desperate bid to flee Afghanistan

Digital democracy

As we watch on in horror, we can only be thankful that we live in a democracy where we enjoy the freedoms that we do and where efforts to more tightly regulate the use and storage of our data and minimise data breaches are underway.

Like many in the IT sector, I've been frustrated at times that privacy concerns have slowed down progress in joining up and streamlining government services, particularly in the health sector. But the overriding concern of many citizens is that linking all of that digital information may be used in some way to penalise them, perhaps through making them ineligible for government support or identifying them as being liable for additional taxes. 

There are many benefits to be enjoyed from having more "joined-up" government, but there are risks with this as well. Thankfully, our government has taken a generally pragmatic approach in this space and is proceeding with caution on the use of artificial intelligence too. Wider efforts to give consumers more control of their data, through the likes of the Consumer Data Right, which is being developed here, and the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are positive moves.

What is happening in Afghanistan is an extreme example, but a reminder that the digital trail we create now, directly and indirectly, could have ramifications for us in years to come. In that light, efforts to beef up privacy, security and data protection laws serve us well, even if they occasionally frustrate our efforts to innovate. 


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