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.