Afghan people face an impossible choice over their digital footprint

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Technology | Comment 18 August 2021

By Nighat Dad

 Photo by CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock (12324544h) (210817) - KABUL, Aug. 17, 2021 (Xinhua) - Taliban fighters are seen on a military vehicle in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. Normality has returned to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan as the Taliban on Tuesday urged the government employees to return to work, two days after the group took control of the capital. Declaring a general amnesty, the Taliban urged all to start routine life with confidence. It also urged women to join its government. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the situation in Kabul was completely under control and law and order returned to the city. Afghanistan Kabul Taliban Situation - 17 Aug 2021

Taliban fighters in Kabul

CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock

The swift progress of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been truly shocking. It feels like only days ago that US president Joe Biden was explaining how a Taliban take over wasn’t inevitable and the Pentagon was talking about how the fall of the capital, Kabul, could take up to 90 days. Now, the Taliban has control of the entire country and has held its first press conference in Kabul for local and international media. No one, I believe, had anticipated that things would escalate quite this quickly.

Though the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press conference that it wouldn’t be seeking “revenge” against people who had opposed them, many Afghan people are understandably still worried. On top of this, they — including those who worked with Western forces and international NGOs, as well as foreign journalists — have been unable to leave the country, as flight capacity has been taken over by Western countries evacuating their citizens.

As such, people have been attempting to move quickly to erase their digital footprints, built up during the 20 years of the previous US-backed governments. Some Afghan activists have been reaching out to me directly to help them put in place robust mobile security and asking how to trigger a mass deletion of their data.

The last time the Taliban was in power, social media barely existed and smartphones had yet to take off. Now, around 4 million people in Afghanistan regularly use social media. Yet, despite the huge rise of digital technologies, a comparative rise in digital security hasn’t happened.

There are few digital security resources that are suitable for people in Afghanistan to use. The leading guide on how to properly delete your digital history by Human Rights First is a brilliant place to start. But unfortunately it is only available in English and unofficially in Farsi. There are also some other guides available in Farsi thanks to the thriving Iranian community of tech enthusiasts who have been working for local human rights activists living in Afghanistan for years.

However, many of these guides will still be unintelligible for those in Afghanistan who speak Dari or Pashto, for example. Along with other digital security trainers, I am working to make translations possible, but even this is too little too late.

People in the global information security and digital rights community should have made more effort to include Afghan voices in tech spaces across the world long ago. And security forces that have been active in Afghanistan should have put more of a focus on the digital safety of locals who were part of their teams. The US, NATO and their allies have poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan through different programmes and initiatives, so how come digital risk assessment plans weren’t ready for thousands of Afghans, including activists and interpreters?

People in Afghanistan who worked with Western forces also face an impossible choice as countries where they might seek asylum often require digital proof of their collaboration. Keep this evidence and they risk persecution from the Taliban, delete it and they may find their only way out no longer available.

Millions of people’s lives will now be vastly different due to the regime change. Digital security feels like one thing that could have been sorted out in advance. We are yet to see exactly how Taliban 2.0 will be different to that which went before. And while the so-called War on Terror appears to be over, I fear a digital terror offensive may just be beginning.

Nighat Dad is a lawyer and internet activist based in Pakistan who runs the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation

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