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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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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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