Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Afghans are racing to erase their online lives

Afghans are racing to erase their online lives

Saturday 21 August 2021, by siawi3


Afghans are racing to erase their online lives

by Chris Stokel-Walker


17.08.2021 06:00 AM

Every photo and every data point is a link to the old way of life in Afghanistan – and a reason for Taliban retribution

Muhibullah is a translator in his thirties who has been working with western companies and the US Army in Kandahar, a city in the south of Afghanistan, for several years. Scared for his life and worried about what his connections with the west might mean for his family, he fled Kandahar ahead of the Taliban arriving in Afghanistan’s second city, leaving his wife and four children behind. (His fears were justified: Kandahar fell to the Taliban on August 13.) He arrived in Kabul for only the second time of his life on July 13.

And now, a month on, the Taliban are in Kabul, the Afghan president has abandoned the country to the militia, and Muhibullah is shorn from the connections he made as a translator in a new city. “We are stuck here,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen.” When he learned the Taliban had arrived in the capital city on August 15 he immediately burned some of the documents that showed he had worked for the United States. Now, like so many Afghans, he is trying to find a way out.

Others who have worked with the US have kept documents but hidden them, knowing that such paperwork is vital to gain a visa and a potential route out of Afghanistan. But it remains a horrific quandary: Taliban militia are already reportedly going door-to-door to find those who have worked with foreign governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Muhibullah – who, for obvious reasons, WIRED is not naming fully – is one of millions of Afghans now tussling with an impossible choice: to what extent should they erase any evidence of their past lives now that the ultra-conservative Taliban are the new rulers of Afghanistan?

The Taliban last ruled Afghanistan in 2001. In the 20 years since, more and more of our lives have been lived online. Now, with the Taliban back in power, each digital breadcrumb could be a reason to be punished or killed. There are several different ways the Taliban could find out information about you: information stored locally on your device; your contacts (messages with whom you’ve exchanged may be on their devices); the cloud services you use; and the data moving between those places, subject to interception. Those are the ones you can control. But there are the photos and videos that people have been caught up in, wittingly and unwittingly, that they can’t control. Posed photographs showing educational projects on NGO websites and candid shots of life outside Taliban rule are all potentially evidence of transgressions. Worried about retribution, many Afghans are scrambling to erase all evidence of their past lives.

“The challenge is how do you balance getting information – like what’s going on at the airport, and people trying to reach you – with eliminating any evidence that a group would use to implicate you in something and take you round back to make an example of you,” says Welton Chang, chief technology officer at Human Rights First, a US NGO focussed on maintaining human rights.

It’s not even a choice limited to Afghans. USAID, the United States’s humanitarian arm, purportedly sent an email over the weekend to partners asking them to go through their social media accounts and websites with a fine-toothed comb to “remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable”. USAID also advised partners still operating in Afghanistan to delete and wipe any personal identifying information of those they’d worked with on the ground, in case it fell into the wrong hands. It follows similar advice from the now-closed US Embassy in Kabul, which emailed personnel to destroy “sensitive material on the property”, including paper and electronic documents.

Human Rights First has put together a guide (in English) on how to delete your digital history, an unofficial Arabic translation of which is available here. It provides information on how to wipe and delete your social media accounts, as well as to delete unused accounts that may still be able to provide a digital thread connecting Afghans to the prior regime. The issue? That guide, written in response to the Hong Kong protests in English, isn’t comprehensible to many Afghans, who speak Dari or Pashto. “I was looking for some of the digital security guides in Dari and Pashto, and unfortunately I could only find a few,” says Nighat Dad, a women and digital rights lawyer from Pakistan. “None of them were really a good, comprehensive digital security guide.” She’s now working to translate the Human Rights First guide into those languages. “Those of us who have been working in this area for a long time, we’re also complicit,” says Dad. “I don’t think we did enough for these people.”

Others advise taking pictures of physical documents, uploading them to cloud services to be retrieved if needed, and burning the evidence. “It would be foolish to think there isn’t a risk,” says Brian Dooley, senior advisor to Human Rights First. “The Taliban certainly know how to use technology. The only sensible way to approach this is to assume the worst and plan for that.”

It’s impossible for anyone, thousands of miles away, to advise people caught in what could literally be a life-or-death situation what to do, beyond give them the options. The Taliban, in interviews with international media in the last few days, have sought to reassure the world that they’ve changed from their last period running Afghanistan. “They are representing themselves as the Taliban 2.0, and Taliban who understand the advanced world,” says Dad. But, she says, actions speak louder than words – and the rounding up of regime opponents and the murder of others can’t be overlooked. “I don’t think people should trust what they’re saying.”

Those caught up in the tumult need to carefully consider how they’ll handle their digital history. If the Taliban have changed, and what they profess is true, then a smiling photograph taken with a western NGO working to improve women’s education should be a one-way ticket to a high-ranking position in the country’s education ministry. Few people believe that to be the case – instead, it’s likely to be a surefire route to punishment. “People are overwhelmed and fighting for their lives,” says Dad. “You might think, ‘Who would care about their digital footprint?’” But, under a regime that in the 1990s in effect entirely banned pop music in Afghanistan, even the existence of the Spotify logo on a phone home screen could prove fatal.

“People need to think hard about what they want to do with their digital history,” says Dad. But she says some will want to encrypt their data while others may decide to wipe all their devices, reset them to their factory settings or potentially destroy the device so the data within is not recoverable. “I know many people don’t have that luxury: these devices are their lifelines at the moment,” says Dad. “But if they have real risks to their physical security and have no other way of making sure their digital footprint safe, it’s the only choice.”

Muhibullah is deleting all foreign contacts from his WhatsApp, and wiping all his phone data. He’s also sent digital copies of important documents to a handful of close contacts. “I’ve done that because the Taliban, if they were searching me and checking my phone, would find my stuff,” he says. “They’d have the option of slaughtering me. They’d know I was working for the Americans.”

Such fears are well justified. The Taliban has previously shown it’s capable and willing to harness the vast data piles we create every day to try and filter out people it believes are detrimental to its way of life, including official government databases. In 2016, Taliban insurgents killed 12 passengers on a bus they stopped after requiring everyone to scan their fingerprints on a biometric machine that cross-checked a database of security force workers, according to an Afghan army commander. “Most of the passengers were not familiar with the machine but we knew it was a biometric device that could identify security force members from amongst civilians,” the commander told Afghan news website TOLOnews at the time.

The Taliban are also believed to have previously used Facebook data to identify individuals with longstanding relationships with US military or NGOs. “We’ve seen that, and supposedly Facebook is aware of this and trying to tamp down on suspicious views of profiles,” says Chang. It’s a similar technique to that deployed by Isis in Iraq, who trawled Facebook for contacts of those deemed to be opponents.

Human Rights First is also trying to put together a quick guide on how to avoid facial recognition technology and biometrics. “We hear that the Taliban has their hands on some of that,” says Dooley. The Taliban are rumoured to have gained access to a US forces biometrics database during their rapid sweep through Afghanistan, which would make it easier for them to identify individuals of interest. “How likely and extensive that is, we don’t know, but people are worried about being identified as either having been seen as collaborators, or for being human rights activists or defenders.”

Those on the ground are taking the approach that an abundance of caution is better than being caught out by a terrorist group. “It’s risky. There’s no security outside,” Muhibullah says. “We’re scared. We are hiding ourselves.”