It’s no longer easy for any woman to become a soccer player, a sport still so macho, so imagine what it means to be an Afghan sportswoman. Now that the country has returned to Taliban rule, former Afghan national team captain Khalida Popal has asked the girls to erase any traces of sports from social media.
A pioneer in women’s football in the country and a great advocate for the rights of other women to continue in the sport, Popal now fears for the lives of Afghan women. “I’m calling them and saying: erase their IDs, take their photos for their safety. I’m even saying set them on fire or get rid of the national team uniform,” she told Reuters. “And that’s painful for me, for someone like an activist who stood up and did everything possible to achieve that identity as a women’s national team player.”
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan was in 2001, before the United States sent troops there. Back then, social media didn’t have the strength they have today. Now, any trace left on the internet can be used to punish a citizen of the country.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban banned Afghan women from working, studying and playing sports. Women had to wear burqas to leave the house and need to be accompanied by a male relative.
Popal, for example, has already been the target of several attacks, death threats and reprimand attempts when he lived in Afghanistan, even during the US occupation phase, for this reason he asked for political asylum and has been living in Denmark since 2011.
Shabnam Mobarez, current captain of the Afghan women’s team, also appealed to FIFA (International Football Federation) for her teammates to be rescued from the country. The 26-year-old player, who lives in the United States, posted the request on Twitter. “We need to act to save my teammates. They’re my sisters,” she wrote, quoting a teammate’s despair: “I know they’ll come after me soon, can you help me?”
At the same time, the “Afghan Dreamers”, a team of 25 girls from 12 to 18 years old who participate in international robotics competitions, managed to leave Afghanistan and are in Doha (Qatar). It is not known for sure how many girls escaped, but there was a huge fear that they would be prevented from studying and become brides.
According to the report of Wired, there is a big movement in the country to erase evidence of life online to avoid punishment by ultraconservatives. At the same time, some citizens somehow try to just hide this information so they can use it to get out of the country.
Cell phones can store key information, such as saved contacts of family and acquaintances, or records of calls made. Though precious, the data could make clear a relationship deemed unwanted by the Taliban.
On social networks, no matter how much users delete their accounts, photos or videos, people can be found in the photos of others.
According to Wired, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), an American humanitarian arm, would have sent an email to partners living in Afghanistan asking them to comb their social networks to remove photos and information that could make individuals vulnerable.
The entity also advised partners still operating in the region to delete and clear all personally identifiable information from those they worked with locally, to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
“The Taliban certainly know how to use technology. The only sensible way to approach this is to assume the worst and plan for it. It would be foolish to think there is no risk,” said Brian Dooley, senior consultant at Human Rights First.
The international human rights organization has put together a guide on how to delete your digital record — the problem is that it’s in English, which doesn’t make it accessible to all Afghans.
Taliban once used technology to find opponents
Fears about the Taliban and technology are justified by actions already taken by the group. In 2016, extremists killed 12 passengers on a bus after demanding that everyone scan their fingerprints into a biometric machine.
With the data collected from passengers, he checked a database to identify workers in the country’s security force, considered harmful to the way of life they preach.
“Most passengers were unfamiliar with the machine, but we knew it was a biometric device that could identify security force members among civilians,” said an Afghan army commander at the time.
The Taliban is also believed to have used Facebook data to identify individuals with long-standing relationships with US military or NGOs. This technique was used by the Islamic State in Iraq, which combed through social media to find those it considered to be opponents.
Knowing this possibility, Facebook has already announced that it will ban, as far as possible, content related to the group from all its platforms. According to the tech giant, content posted by extremist users or containing Taliban information will not be allowed on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
“The Taliban has been sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law and we ban them from our services in accordance with our Dangerous Organization policies,” a company spokesman told CNBC.
Group would be using WhatsApp
However, banning this type of content from WhatsApp is not as simple as on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. That’s because the messages are encrypted end-to-end, which means only people involved in exchanging texts, photos and videos can gain access to them.
According to a report in Vice, the Taliban knowing this would be using the app to spread messages to citizens as they take over the country. According to a text shared by the magazine, the use of WhatsApp was one of the points that made the group take over Afghanistan so quickly.
While the United States admitted that it thought it would take at least 90 days for the group to regain power in the country, it was just 10 days after the announcement of the troop withdrawal. Apparently, instead of facing the Afghan army, the Taliban only spread information on WhatsApp that they would be in control of certain cities and thus gained ground in the country.
Washington Post report shows that the group sent messages via WhatsApp to residents of the capital Kabul in which it only proclaimed: “we are responsible for the security of Kabul”.
The messages listed telephone numbers in various neighborhoods that citizens should call if they noticed problems such as looting or “irresponsible” behavior by armed persons.
In an interview with Vice magazine, a Facebook spokesperson declined to answer whether the Taliban used the messenger app. “As a private messaging service, we do not have access to the content of people’s personal chats; however, if we become aware that a sanctioned individual or organization may be present on WhatsApp, we take action,” the spokesperson said.