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This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban

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This is the real story of the Afghan biometric databases abandoned to the Taliban


According to Jacobsen’s book, AABIS aimed to cover 80% of the Afghan population by 2012, or roughly 25 million people. While there is no publicly available information on just how many records this database now contains, and neither the contractor managing the database nor officials from the US defense department have responded to requests for comment, one unconfirmed figure from the LinkedIn profile of its US-based program manager puts it at 8.1 million records. 

AABIS was widely used in a variety of ways by the previous Afghan government. Applications for government jobs and roles at most projects required a biometric check from the MoI system to ensure that applicants had no criminal or terrorist background. Biometric checks were also required for passport, national ID, and drivers’ license applications, as well as registrations for the country’s college entrance exam. 

Another database, slightly smaller than AABIS, was connected to the “e-tazkira”, the country’s electronic national ID card. By the time the government fell, it had roughly 6.2 million applications in process, according to the National Statistics and Information Authority, though it is unclear how many applicants had already submitted biometric data. 

Biometrics were also used—or at least publicized—by other government departments as well. The Independent Election Commission used biometric scanners in an attempt to prevent voter fraud during the 2019 parliamentary elections, with questionable results. In 2020, the Ministry of Industries and Commerce announced that they would collect biometrics from those who were registering new businesses. 

Despite the plethora of systems, they were never fully connected to each other. An August 2019 audit by the US found that despite the $38 million dollars spent to date, APPS had not met many of its aims: biometrics still weren’t integrated directly into its personnel files, but were rather just linked by the biometric unique number. Nor did the system connect directly to other Afghan government computer systems, like that of the Ministry of Finance, which sent out the salaries. APPS also still relied on manual data-entry processes, said the audit, which allowed room for either human error or manipulation.

A global issue

Afghanistan is not the only country to embrace biometrics. Many countries are concerned about so-called “ghost beneficiaries”—fake identities that are used to illegally collect salaries or other funds. Preventing such fraud is a common justification for biometric systems, says Amba Kak, the director of global policy and programs at the AI Now institute and a legal expert on biometric systems.

“It’s really easy to paint this [APPS] as exceptional,” says Kak, who co-edited a book on global biometric policies. It “seems to have a lot of continuity with global experiences” around biometrics.

“Biometric ID as the only efficient means for legal identification is… flawed and a little dangerous.”

Amber Kak, AI Now

It’s widely recognized that having legal identification documents is a right, but “conflating biometric ID as the only efficient means for legal identification is,” she says, “flawed and a little dangerous.” 

Kak questions whether biometrics—rather than policy fixes —are the right solution to fraud, and adds that often it is “not evidence-based.” 

But driven largely by US military objectives and international funding, Afghanistan’s rollout of such technologies has been aggressive. Even if APPS and other databases had not yet achieved the level of function they were intended to, they still contain many terabytes of data on Afghan citizens that the Taliban can mine. 

“Identity dominance”—but by whom? 

The growing alarm over the biometric devices and databases left behind, and the reams of other data about ordinary life in Afghanistan, has not stopped the collection of people’s sensitive data in the two weeks between the Taliban’s entry into Kabul and the official withdrawal of American forces. 

This time, the data is being collected mostly by well-intentioned volunteers in unsecured Google forms and spreadsheets, highlighting either that the lessons on data security have not yet been learned—or that they must be relearned by every group involved. 

Singh says the issue of what happens to data during conflicts or governmental collapse needs to be given more attention. “We don’t take it seriously,” he says, “But we should, especially in these war-torn areas where information can be used to create a lot of havoc.”

Kak, the biometrics law researcher, suggests the best way to protect sensitive data may actually be that “ these kinds of [data] infrastructures…weren’t built in the first place.”

For Jacobsen, the author and journalist, it is ironic that the Department of Defense’s obsession with using data to establish identity might actually help the Taliban achieve its own version of identity dominance. “That would be the fear of what the Taliban is doing,” she says. 

Ultimately, some experts say that the fact that Afghan government databases were not very interoperable may actually be a saving grace if the Taliban do try to use the data. “I suspect that the APPS still doesn’t work that well, which is probably a good thing in light of recent events,” said Dan Grazier, a veteran who works at watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, by email. 

But for those connected to in the APPS database, who may now find themselves or their family members hunted by the Taliban, it’s less irony, and more betrayal. 

“The Afghan military trusted their international partners, including and led by the US, to build a system like this,” says one of the individuals familiar with the system. “And now that database is going to be used as the [new] government’s weapon.”

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming


Pinot Grigio actually makes a white wine and it’s won a few varieties in California that, uh, is a pretty common variety that actually we make purple grapes that make a white wine. So my name is Dirk Heuvel and I’m the VP of vineyard operations here at McManis family vineyards. 

My family actually kind of set roots here, actually farming almonds. And some people say almonds, we say in Ripon, and we say, say, almonds. 

I feel like, if it was like my dad or my grandpa trying to adopt this technology, absolutely. I think there’d be a huge culture shock there for them. I still think they don’t quite understand it, but they’re seeing the results of it. So I think that’s the most important thing—that we’re able to show them that it is working and how it’s working for us.

I will say today, I feel that we’re growing better quality grapes than we were 30 years ago. Just adapting a lot of this aerial imagery, modern irrigation technology, running drip system technology, you know, being able to fertilize through drip systems. And you can actually look at the imaging on your phone and you can actually pinpoint go out and walk to a specific vine. You know, that might be a   vine that died, that shows up on the aerial imaging. You can use the technology and, and walk right into a specific area. Just being able to identify areas, you know, using GPS. We can have field checkers go through the field now and on their app, they’re able to actually drop and pinpoint where we might have mite issues where we might have, you know, leafhopper issues, areas that need to get treated. And that actually allows us to go through and just cite specific treat. Instead of treating an entire vineyard block, we’re able to just treat specific areas.

Jennifer: It was only what like five, seven years ago, it was half of farm workers weren’t using smartphones. 

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. 

Jennifer: So, if people are dropping pins that’s…

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. You know, 30 years ago, in order to make a phone call, you’d have to drive in a, in a town or go to your house to call your irrigator to do stuff. And now it’s, this is almost, it’s like real time farming. Now we can make decisions on the fly. And one of the big advantages to using variable rate applications is that you’re only applying the amount of nutrients or amendments that are needed for a specific area. So before we adapted this variable rate technology, we would drive down a row and we would put a consistent amount of amendments, whether it be gypsum, lime, soil, sulfur, we would apply that amount evenly throughout the entire vineyard block. Now we realize going through and using this variable rate technology is that we might cut the, the amendments that are needed by 20 to 30% on a specific vineyard block, just by applying the correct amounts of nutrients where they’re needed and not overlying where they’re not needed 

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The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda

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🧠


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.

Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.

What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable.  But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.

Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)

4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s Artemis moon mission has been delayed again
Due to tropical storm Ian. (BBC)
+ Saudi Arabia wants to send its first female astronaut into space. (Insider $)

6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $) 

8 The Danish city that banned Google
The tech giant’s handling of children’s data wasn’t properly assessed. (Wired $)
+ Google says it’s unwilling to pitch it to fund network costs in Europe. (Reuters)

9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)

10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion 🍔
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells? 

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader. 
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.



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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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