This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban

Jacobsens book states that AABIS was intended to reach 80% of Afghanistan's population by 2012. That is roughly 25 million people. Although there is not much information available about the number of records in this database, neither the contractor who manages it nor the officials from the US Defense Department have responded to inquiries for comment. However, one unconfirmed figure that was provided by the LinkedIn profile its US-based program manger puts it at 8.1 millions records.
The previous Afghan government used AABIS in many ways. To ensure applicants have no terrorist or criminal background, biometric checks were required for all government positions and projects. For passports, national ID and drivers license applications, biometric checks were required.

Another database was linked to AABIS but it was slightly smaller than the AABIS. This is the electronic national ID card of the country, e-tazkira. According to the National Statistics and Information Authority (NSIA), there were approximately 6.2 million applications at the time of the government's collapse. However, it is not clear how many applicants had submitted biometric data.

Other government departments also used biometrics, or at least made public. In an attempt to prevent voter fraud in the 2019 parliamentary elections with mixed results, the Independent Election Commission used biometric scanning devices. The Ministry of Industries and Commerce declared in 2020 that they would collect biometrics on new business registrations.

Despite having a multitude of systems, none were fully integrated with each other. The US audited APPS in August 2019. It found that despite spending $38 million, APPS still had not achieved many of its goals. Biometrics were not integrated directly into personnel files. Instead, they were linked using the biometric unique number. The system did not connect to any other Afghan government systems like the Ministry of Finance which sent the salaries. The audit revealed that APPS still relied on manual data entry processes. This allowed for human error and manipulation.

Global issues

Afghanistan isn't the only country that has adopted biometrics. Many countries are concerned about ghost beneficiaries, or fake identities that can be used to illegally collect wages and other funds. Amba Kak is the director of global policies and programs at AI Now and a legal expert in biometric systems.

It's easy to portray this [APPS] in a positive light, according to Kak, co-editor of a book about global biometric policies. It seems to be very consistent with global biometrics experiences.

"Biometric ID is not the best way to identify yourself legally. It's flawed and even dangerous." Amber Kak, AI Now

Although it is widely acknowledged that legal identification documents are a right, conflating biometric identification as the only effective means of legal identification is flawed and dangerous.

Kak asks if biometricsratherthan policy fixes are the best solution to fraud and says that it is often not evidence-based.

However, Afghanistan's aggressive rollout of these technologies was driven largely by US military goals and international funding. Even though APPS and the other databases have not reached the intended function, they still hold many terabytes data about Afghan citizens that can be accessed by the Taliban.

Who is the one who has identity dominance?

Despite growing concern about biometric devices and databases being left behind and other data about Afghan life, it has not stopped people from obtaining sensitive data between Talibans entry to Kabul and the official withdrawal by American forces.

The data was collected mainly by volunteers using unsecured Google forms and spreadsheets. This highlights either that lessons in data security are not yet being learned or that everyone involved must learn them again.

Singh believes that the question of data destruction during conflict or government collapse should be addressed more. He says we don't take it seriously. But, especially in war-torn regions where information can be used for a lot of destruction.

Kak, the biometrics law researcher, suggests the best way to protect sensitive data may actually be that these kinds of [data] infrastructures...weren't built in the first place.

Jacobsen, a journalist and author, finds it ironic that the Department of Defense's obsession with using data for identity may actually be helping the Taliban to achieve their own version of identity dominance. She says that this would be because she is afraid of what the Taliban might do.

Experts believe that the fact that Afghan databases are not interoperable could be a saving grace for the Taliban if they do attempt to use them. According to Dan Grazier (a veteran working at the Project on Government Oversight), I believe that the APPS is still not functioning as well. This is likely a good thing considering recent events.

For those in the APPS database who might now find themselves or family members being hunted down by the Taliban, it's less irony and more betrayal.

One person familiar with the system says that the Afghan military trusted their international partners to create a system similar to this. This database will now be used by the [new] governments as a weapon.