What can Georgia learn from the regime change in Afghanistan?
The images coming out of Kabul this week have rightly shocked the world. Desperate families, eager to outrun the advancing forces of the Taliban, tried in vain to escape — with some even dying in the process. But what exactly were they running from?
Violent repression of human rights, femicide and hemophobia, and a cornucopia of intolerances large and small immediately spring to mind when considering any government formed by religious extremists. What may not be immediately clear is that willingness to implement these chilling restrictions on freedom was always bubbling just beneath the surface; and the preceding government (while supposedly aligned with Western values) has actually enabled their successors more than they could have imagined.
Yesterday, Rina Chandran (Thomson Reuters) reported on a troubling development in Afghanistan; affecting not only women and girls, as rights groups have warned in the past, but also academics, journalists and activists of all stripes. These people, it is believed by experts, will soon be harassed, and perhaps worse, by the incoming Taliban leaders. If and when these new leaders act, their jobs will be made much easier as a result of the databases of information the prior government has collected on the citizens of Afghanistan. The information in these databases is extensive, covering biometrics such as iris patterns, fingerprints, facial recognition maps, and more. What started out as a national database for voter registration has turned into an authoritarians’ dream.
By cross-referencing this database with other publicly-available data (such as social media profiles) and non-public data (such as health records, tax information, and property-registration), the Taliban now has the capability to individualize their repressive techniques in a way that has never been available to them in the past. While ordinary Afghans scramble to delete as much personally-identifiable information as they can, they have become increasingly worried about the data they don’t have access to — the data on government servers. “”We understand that the Taliban is now likely to have access to (this information), Human Rights group Amnesty International said on Monday, placing these vulnerable people “at serious risk of Taliban reprisals.”
Is there a way to protect?
In an attempt to protect as many people as possible, the advocacy organization has posted detailed information on how to delete your personal digital history, as well as steps to evades biometric surveillance on their website.
“With the data, it is much more difficult to hide, obfuscate your and your family’s identities, and the data can also be used to flesh out your contacts and network,” stated Welton Chang, CTO at Human Rights First.
He went on to say that the data mining could also be used “to create a new class structure — job applicants would have their bio-data compared to the database, and jobs could be denied on the basis of having connections to the former government or security forces.” The most “dire circumstance” would be to use the data to target anyone who was involved in the previous government, or worked in an international non-profit, or was a human rights defender, he reported to Thomson Reuters.
Why it matters for you in Georgia?
But what of Georgia? How should ordinary people here react to such news and what can we learn from it? For starters, we can resist the push to creating new warehouses of digital information — even if they seem to be for a good cause, like voter registration. Recently, there have been suspicions of wide-ranging, politically-motivated surveillance as Georgian media outlet on.ge reported that television channel Mtavari Arkhi’s Director Nika Gvaramia’s accusations that the ruling Georgian Dream party oversees ‘mass illegal surveillance’ of politicians, members of NGOs, foreign diplomats and even the party’s own members.
Today, Georgian news outlet Agenda.ge reported that a previously unannounced program for issuing ‘Covid Passports’ has begun in earnest at public service halls and community centers nationwide. In other countries, these ‘Passports’ are required to access even the most basic functions of society, such as visiting food markets, restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues. While the particular restriction in Georgia are yet to be discussed publicly, we’ve seen enforcement regimes in other countries include requirements for the business to maintain records of the people who visit, what time they visit, how long they stay, and in some cases what they purchase. These records must be stored and made available to authorities upon request.
So far, only a few lone voices have started questioning the data security and retention policies involved in such a wide-ranging collection of information, and fewer still have speculated about unintended consequences. Benjamin Davenport, a technologist from Liverpool, recently asked on Twitter, “If these Vaccine Passports gain more acceptance, what’s to stop them from holding more information about your health? Maybe it has the medications you currently take, what doctors you visit and for what conditions. Maybe even past surgical procedures. Imagine if an Afghan woman had an abortion under the old government, now the Taliban knows that. Is she gonna be safe?”
While the situation surrounding Covid-19 is still very much developing, one thing is sure; it has changed our society in many ways.
The question is: Will the change be for the better? Will the next government here in Georgia respect the privacy of its citizens or exploit their databases for political purposes? If we know how dangerous these databases are, why even allow their creation? Is the risk really worth it?