Digital tools have become a liability and a lifeline of last resort in Afghanistan
Aug 19, 2021

Digital tools have become a liability and a lifeline of last resort in Afghanistan

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Aid agencies are collecting information through Google Forms and WhatsApp to help Afghans evacuate.

When the Afghan government quickly fell to the Taliban over the weekend, alerts went out with instructions to delete digital activity. Contacts, photos, music — anything that might link someone to something opposed by the Taliban.

But in the absence of a coordinated evacuation effort, vulnerable Afghans are now being asked to share personal information online, sometimes to accounts they can’t confirm are legitimate.

Eileen Guo is a senior reporter covering tech policy and ethics at MIT Technology Review. She also spent two and a half years in Kabul as founder of Impassion Afghanistan, the country’s first digital media agency.

She says Afghans are being asked to share details about past employment, even scans of their passports. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Eileen Guo: So there’s Google Forms that are popping up. There’s WhatsApp numbers. There’s numerous Facebook and WhatsApp and Signal groups where people are sharing and asking for pretty private information. So the idea is that if someone that is able to coordinate safe passage to the airport or coordinate to get someone on an evacuation plane, it’s a lot easier to do that if you already have all of these details in place. But on the other hand, it’s really hard to know where these documents are actually going and what kind of data safety or security is being practiced or not. It was complicated reporting this piece, because our intent was not to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this.’ Because if this is someone’s lifeline, then yes, we should be making use of every way that we can to get people that need safety to safety. But there are questions that need to be raised. 

Meghan McCarty Carino: You wrote that it is unlikely that the Taliban can hack WhatsApp or Google Forms, so what is the risk there? 

Eileen Guo (courtesy of Guo)

Guo: Even if the Taliban is not able to hack into Google Forms, WhatsApp, any of these other communication channels, you don’t really know if the person that is saying that they are this organization trying to get people out, is really that organization. It leads to, in the short term, potential issues if some bad actor comes in and tries to exploit the situation. But it also leads to potentially bad digital security habits in the long term, and a message that your data is essentially up for grabs, and that’s the price of getting you out of the country. And that is not the right message either.

McCarty Carino: You wrote that the threats in Afghanistan are both online and off. What are you hearing about online threats from some of your contacts?

Guo: I’ve spoken to a number of individuals that have received threats from the Taliban, that have told them that they know where their family home is, that they know what they’re doing. The Taliban has also learned to use technology and social media, and they are also delivering threats via these platforms. 

McCarty Carino: You used to run a digital media and citizen journalism effort in Kabul, so you’re not only reporting on the situation, you’ve actually been using some of these same tools and methods to try to help your friends and former colleagues in Afghanistan, right? Can you tell us about how that’s gone?

Guo: It’s been really frustrating trying to help my friends get out of the country, and it goes back even before the forums and the online efforts. Not everyone has passports, and I tried to send money to one of my former employees for his family to get passports, but by the time that we were able to coordinate how much money to send, what the plan was, all of that, by the weekend, there was no cash to be withdrawn from Western Union or the banks at that point. So there’s layers and layers [of] challenges, and the only official ways to get out right now are essentially impossible. You need a passport, you need a visa. There are no commercial flights out of Kabul right now, and even if you are able to get those first steps, you’re looking at 12 to 16 months perhaps in a third country. You have to support yourself, and there’s still no guarantee at the end of that of whether or not you’ll make it. So all of these coordinating efforts that are coming up there. It’s still so many questions that they can’t answer, which are really policy-level questions. There are evacuation lists, but it’s unclear if you don’t have a passport already, or if you don’t have a visa, like who exactly is going to be accepting you on the other side? Where are you flying to? How can you even get to the airport? It feels to everyone that’s involved in these efforts that despite these unanswered questions, that they’re better than nothing.

McCarty Carino: You’ve been in contact with folks in Afghanistan and sort of coordinating some of these things. But you’ve also been working to shut down old social media profiles that had photos that showed people’s faces that could identify them. I understand the Department of Defense is doing something similar. What has that process been like?

Guo: I imagine it’s a little bit different for everyone. But one of the issues overall is we’ve been in Afghanistan for 20 years, right? And over that time, there’s been so many development organizations, contractors, businesses, initiatives that have come and gone, and a lot of them like my organization aren’t active anymore. So for me, it was a matter of like, I don’t have access to the email accounts, which were registered in Afghanistan that had registered the YouTubes, the Twitters, Flicker, Instagram, all of that. So it’s taking intervention from individuals at these companies to help out.

It’s kind of ironic and also very sad. My organization in Afghanistan, our purpose was to help create a thriving digital democracy. Essentially, we wanted people to feel like their voice mattered, we wanted them to chime in to the public discourse, if you will, online, to see that you could use social media and citizen journalism for good, and for participation. And so we set up all of these platforms and our accounts to kind of highlight the trainings that we were doing in provinces, the events where we brought people together, some of the citizen journalism reports that were sent into us, and all of these signs of what felt like progress at the time, everything about them now is a risk. And it’s not just the faces that are in the videos and the photos, that’s obviously part of it, but it’s also who’s interacted with us? Who’s following us? Who likes us? Like all of that could be used to identify people that the Taliban might take issue with.

McCarty Carino: Have you been able to disable these accounts? I saw you reaching out on Twitter frantically trying to get in touch with people from these companies. You talked about planning, perhaps a mass reporting campaign to get some of the images taken down?

Guo: Yeah. Luckily, we haven’t had to do that. Everything has been removed, except for the YouTube account. We’re still waiting for them to handle that. 

McCarty Carino: How much protection do you think this will provide? I mean, it is hard to delete something permanently online. There’s the Wayback Machine. The Taliban, presumably, could find archived versions of some of these things, there’s other forms of data, as you mentioned.

Guo: That’s a great question, and I don’t have an answer to that. But it would just feel irresponsible, if we didn’t try.

Related Links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Guo’s story in MIT Technology Review goes into more detail on these various ad hoc efforts, including groups collecting money to charter planes or connecting people with former employers to help apply for refugee status.

There have been many entrepreneurs over the last two decades who had worked to build digital connectivity in the country, something that as we mentioned could now be a liability. The site Rest of the World has an interview with Sarah Wahedi, who leads a Kabul-based startup that crowdsources safety alerts in the city about bomb blasts, road blocks or electricity outages. Wahedi isn’t currently in Afghanistan, but her team is still working there, as these types of security updates are obviously more valuable than ever. But that puts their own safety at risk, and she’s trying to get them out of the country.

The whole situation has put tech companies, especially social media platforms, in a weird and really powerful position. Shira Ovide wrote yesterday in the New York Times that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are almost acting as governments crafting foreign policy. As they make decisions about what content to allow, she writes, “It’s still wild that a handful of unelected tech executives play a role in high-stakes global affairs.”

It may be less wild as actual elected governments grapple themselves with whether to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate ruling power.

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