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Taliban captured US facial recognition and eye-scan database, reports say

A Taliban fighter (right) searches the bags of people coming out of the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
August 19, 2021

A key database of the biometric information of Afghan allies who assisted U.S. and coalition forces may now be in the hands of Taliban militants who are seeking revenge.

On Tuesday, the Intercept reported, based on the accounts of a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) official and three former U.S. military personnel, that Taliban fighters obtained U.S. Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE) systems during their sweeping offensive throughout Afghanistan last week.

“We processed thousands of locals a day, had to ID, sweep for suicide vests, weapons, intel gathering, etc.” a U.S. military contractor told the Intercept. “[HIIDE] was used as a biometric ID tool to help ID locals working for the coalition.”

HIIDE devices contain such identifying information as iris scans, fingerprints and biographical information, and are linked to large centralized databases.

The potential compromise of key biometric data of Afghan allies who have helped U.S. forces raises serious concerns as Taliban fighters have been seeking reprisals against those who assisted their enemies throughout the 20-year Afghan conflict.

Taliban fighters have already set up checkpoints around the Kabul airport, where U.S. troops are working to evacuate both Americans and Afghans.

It is unclear how much biometric data the Taliban may be compromised.

An Army Special Operations veteran told the Intercept it’s possible that the Taliban doesn’t have tools necessary to access the HIIDE systems, but shared concerns that the Pakistan government would ultimately assist them in breaking into the database would assist with this.

“The Taliban doesn’t have the gear to use the data but the ISI do,” the former Special Operations official said, referring to Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI has been known to work closely with the Taliban.

On Monday, the human rights nonprofit Human Rights First tweeted, “We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to various biometric databases and equipment in Afghanistan.”

Human Rights First also published a guide with ways to help people evade biometric scanning technology.

The guide advises keeping one’s head down and wearing special effects makeup or doing other things to alter the appearances of one’s mouth, nose, eyes, jawline, and cheekbones below the eyes to beat facial recognition systems. The guide also advises ways to make fake fingerprints and even cutting one’s fingertips to trick fingerprint scanners. The guide also advises wearing colored contact lenses and even using hallucinogenic pharmaceuticals like Tropicamide to dilate one’s pupils to trick iris scanners.

Welton Chang, chief technology officer for Human Rights First, told the Intercept, “I don’t think anyone ever thought about data privacy or what to do in the event the [HIIDE] system fell into the wrong hands.”

“Moving forward, the U.S. military and diplomatic apparatus should think carefully about whether to deploy these systems again in situations as tenuous as Afghanistan,” Chang added.