HIIDE in Plain Sight

Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

In August 2021, the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and left behind Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, also known as HIIDE. The device was built with the intention of identifying terrorists using finger and facial recognition as well as iris scans. Facial recognition (FRT) is software that analyzes, compares, and confirms an individual’s identity using available images. Iris scans work similarly, using a geometrical pattern of a person’s eye the same way FRT uses the geometric pattern of a person’s face, except infrared lights are implemented to illuminate the unique characteristics of each iris (NIST). All of this advanced technology is boxed in a sleek and small five by eight inch portable device, on the surface appearing completely harmless, but now left to the Taliban, it has become one of their most powerful weapons.

The Taliban could use HIIDE to identify Afghans who assisted the U.S military (Klippenstein). In an interview with NPR, investigative reporter Annie Jacobsen stated that the Defense Department had a goal of capturing biometrics on 80 percent of the Afghan population, creating a catalog of individuals who could be possibly linked to a crime (Inskeep). The enrollement of biometric data into Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), the database where HIIDE’s data is processed and stored, originally began in Iraq to collect fingerprints found on bombs and match them to bombmakers. However, the Defense Department took it one step further in Afghanistan by collecting biometric data from not only Afghan special forces members, but from civilians in patrolled villages whether they were suspects or not.

The intense collection of biometric data is excused by the Homeland Security’s privacy impact assessment of ABIS through “its antiterrorism, special operations, stability operations, homeland defense, counterintelligence, and intelligence efforts around the world.” The invasiveness is shown through odd questions asking Afghan individuals about their favorite fruits and vegetables or the names of their extended family members (Guo). And like HIIDE, despite appearing harmless on the surface, it demonstrates the extent of information gathered on foreign individuals. The line between intrusive and precautionary is blurred.

Afghan National Police application data is stored in a US-funded database “Afghan Personnel and Pay System”. The United States Central Command did not respond to MIT’s request for comment concerning the use for data concerning new recruit’s favorite foods and such.

HIIDE’s data appears to be accessible by Inter-Services Intelligence, a Pakistani agency which has been known to work closely with the Taliban in the past, creating an opportunity for Afghan civilians and military personnel to be hunted for their cooperation with the United States. In 2016, a mass kidnapping orchestrated by the Taliban took place in Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan. Witnesses report the Taliban using a device to scan everyone’s fingerprints, ultimately to identify the special forces members that were amongst civilians. Ten were executed on the spot during the Kunduz kidnapping (TOLOnews). The possibility for a similar disaster to occur is terrifying.

It is important to note that HIIDE is a tool, a neutral constituent in a political disaster. Advanced technology such as those mentioned only pose a threat through their applications and the dismissal of concerns raised. The lack of contingency plans for the carelessness seen during the evacuation in Afghanistan emphasizes the need to remove biometric technology from the battlefield.

Examining the Costs and Benefits of Biometrics

surveillance tool

What are biometrics?

Biometrics are a means of identification of humans. These digital identifiers are unique to each individual and can be used to grant access to private networks. Commonly used biometric identifiers include our fingerprints, voice, typing cadence, and other physiological or behavioral traits. Biometrics provide higher levels of security to data, systems, and other private networks. These identifiers are more efficient and effective than standard security implementations such as passwords and codes.

How is it used?

This form of identification plays a significant role in daily life. It is widely used in many situations, including unlocking a phone, airport security, criminal investigations, and more. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security utilizes biometric data on a large scale, filtering out illegal travelers, enforcing federal laws, and verifying the credentials of visa applicants. To date, their system has documented 260 million unique identities and processes over 350,000 cases per day. An individual may encounter biometric identification when using facial recognition or fingerprinting software to unlock their phone. Most devices nowadays including laptops, phones, and tablets come equipped with high tech identification tools such as facial recognition technology, iris scans, and fingerprinting.

Ethical Concerns

While these features offer convenience and efficiency which entice customers, activists argue over the ethics of storing biometric data. According to Andy Adler, a professor specializing in biometrics at Canada’s Carleton University, “[Biometric] systems are also vulnerable to all of the traditional security threats as well as all sorts of new ones and interactions between old and new ones.” The usage of biometric software introduces new threats of identity theft or financial crime, as hackers target and steal biometric information for filing for credit, taxes, insurance scams, and more.

Discrimination

Biometrics like facial recognition disproportionately misidentify people of color, women, and children. According to a study conducted at MIT, facial recognition technologies misidentify darker skinned women one in three times. This high error rate can lead to false accusations in criminal investigations, putting communities of color at risk. For example, it was recently discovered that a Black man, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, was wrongfully accused of shoplifting $3,800 worth of goods from a store in Detroit. When law enforcement officers identified a Black man in a red cap in a surveillance video, facial recognition software falsely identified Williams as the suspect. He was arrested and jailed for over 24 hours. His case was brought to the attention of the public as a result of a hearing in Detroit focused on facial recognition and the increasing rates of false positives faced by darker-skinned people.

While these issues persists, biometric identifiers like facial recognition should not be widely used. It could take years to train artificial intelligence systems to comprehend the needs of modern-day society.