When the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001, the platform era had yet to begin, and Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were words that were unheard of. Twenty years later, when the Taliban swept through Kabul once again, they seized power in a digital era caught in the chokehold of platforms and took control of a state comprising several digital identity and biometric information systems. In doing so, they have exposed the fragility and porousness of the platformized state, instigating a data breach with far-reaching ramifications.
Existing digital ID systems map onto already existing forms of discrimination against women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other marginalized communities, and demonstrate the myriad ways in which these systems put different groups at risk. The possibility for discrimination against these groups has reached particularly concerning levels in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have gained access to biometric databases compiled by the US military and the Afghan digital ID system — a situation that manifests some of the worst fears of social justice, human rights, and digital rights advocates.
In this context, it is pertinent to ask what are the possibilities of feminist digital justice in the face of the platformized state. In particular, it is essential to excavate the increasing support for digital identity systems and question how such systems amplify the patriarchal logic of the state, particularly its proclivity towards masculinized narratives of protection and the desire to discipline its citizens for their own “safety”. Within this paradigm, citizens become subordinate to the state, akin to the status of women and children in a patriarchal household, who are dependent on others (primarily men), for their safety and thus made obedient to them. In Afghanistan, the masculine posturing of both domestic and international actors converges with a particularly one-dimensional feminism that gives a static explication of the disenfranchisement of Afghan women that overlooks the nuances of their resistance. The portrayal of women in Afghanistan as a disempowered monolith; silent, submissive, and unable to advocate for themselves, has often overlooked the complex interplay of different forms of gender-based discrimination within the state and inhibited the ability of a feminist perspective to provide insight into the dynamics of oppression. Given that the analysis of potential damage of digital ID systems has replicated these blind spots at the same time as the systems themselves have reified the patriarchal logic of the state, this essay explores how a more expansive conception of feminist digital justice might assist in rectifying this myopia.
Both, the centralized nature of the platformized state and the international roots of Afghanistan’s biometric databases, requires us to take a more intersectional approach than the feminist justice rooted in ‘whiteness’ that too often prevails in international development conversations on Afghanistan and more broadly on digital identification systems. Furthermore, the use of an intersectional approach can allow us to grasp the multi-layered and often non-linear nature of oppression flattened by digital ID systems. Such an approach can ultimately offer us a fuller view of what justice means in the context of the platformized state.
The Platformized State and Digital Identity
The platformized state has many guises, but it may have reached its zenith with digital identity systems. Digital ID systems bring together highly sensitive data, state power, provision of services and, often, third-party platforms. Subsequently, these systems have immense power over the everyday lives of citizens — a behemoth that hulks in the background of seemingly mundane state-citizen interactions. Seen as a critical marker of a digitized state by international organizations and western donors in the business of ‘Government as Platform’, digital ID systems allow governments to centralize the compilation of sensitive information and biometric data for identification purposes.
Both, the centralized nature of the platformized state and the international roots of Afghanistan’s biometric databases, requires us to take a more intersectional approach than the feminist justice rooted in ‘whiteness’.
A 2019 report published by The Engine Room, looked at the lived effects of digital ID on mostly marginalized communities in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Thailand, and noted the dual possibilities of systems that empower communities by giving them access to much-needed government services while also imperiling digital privacy by increasing surveillance. In a follow-up report on reimagining digital ID systems rooted in justice, published in January 2021, we spoke with civil society, community groups, and individuals impacted by digital ID to understand the new forms of advocacy being undertaken in this regard. Across both projects we looked at some of the driving factors behind digital ID systems as their deployment gains international traction, especially in the Global South. We found that a potent combination of a) the drive towards universal identification as captured by Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, and b) the health concerns of the pandemic, have resulted in a frenzy of digitizing services, which has increased support for digital ID systems.
Platformification of the state, or the shifting of in-person and paper-based state-society interactions to online platforms, brings together the uncertainties and worries around both state power and digital rights. Especially in the Global South, where digital ID systems are supplied by private, usually West-based actors, oversight is limited. Further, the ability to opt out of such systems is constrained when they are necessary for access to welfare services. These factors make for a system that stifles accountability almost by design. The complex confluence of these factors is typified by the UNHCR’s misuse of biometric data collected from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that this data was shared with the Myanmar government to facilitate repatriation — this despite the UNHCR emphatically stating that the data collected would not be used for such purposes. This outcome was not a surprise. In fact, Rohingya refugees had themselves protested the collection of such data on these very grounds, fearing the surveillance capabilities such information could enable. Indeed, the power that digital ID systems bestow on the state to surveil, coupled with inadequate data protection laws, ensure that digital ID systems rapidly shift from being the supposed bureaucratic panacea touted by the World Bank and other donors, to a flawed response that often serves to amplify existing inequities.
As is the case with many technologies, activists are forced to study, critique, and respond to digital ID systems as they unfold. A confluence of recent events has meant that, unfortunately, the harmful consequences of policy and technological decisions are already being experienced in Afghanistan, primarily by those who had little say in the implementation of digital IDs in the first place. This situation is a reminder that all too often those threatened by the platformization of the state are already endangered by the state itself.
Digital ID Systems in Afghanistan
Digital ID systems in Afghanistan have many faces and take many forms. There are three key digital ID systems of concern: the United States Department of Defense’s (DOD) biometric program, the e-Tazkira identity card, and the biometric voter verification system. These systems were rolled out with a securitized narrative revolving around claims of “necessary” surveillance for counter-terrorism efforts. They were also framed within a development discourse professing to open up the market through identity verification, and are a part of externally-imposed understandings of how democratization happens with the support of biometric voter verification.
The power that digital ID systems bestow on the state to surveil, coupled with inadequate data protection laws, ensure that digital ID systems rapidly shift from being the supposed bureaucratic panacea touted by the World Bank and other donors, to a flawed response that often serves to amplify existing inequities.
In 2004, shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the DOD introduced the automated biometric identification system (ABIS), a centralized system for biometric data. This policy decision was underwritten by the international community, and the US military’s own mission to achieve “identity dominance”. A key pillar of the US Military’s counter-terrorism strategy, identity dominance, relied on the collection of vast amounts of identifying information to allow the US Military “to keep track of people the military considers a potential threat regardless of aliases, and ultimately denying organizations the ability to use anonymity to hide their activities”. US military forces were mandated to collect biometric information of anyone who could be a national security concern, which in practice turned out to be almost everyone: detainees, prisoners of war, people applying to work on US military bases, the Iraqi police, recipients of microloans, suspected insurgents, dead and alive enemy combatants, military contractors, and those who were allied to the Afghan police or army. By last count, there were 2.5 million entries for Afghanistan in the database.
The e-Tazkira, a biometric electronic ID (e-ID), was introduced in 2018 to streamline population registration. The system bears the imprints of numerous international actors including the USA, EU, and the World Bank. One of the key justifications for its introduction was the possibility of using the e-ID for election purposes and so in 2018, the Afghan government created a national voter registry that required the presentation of e-Tazkira to vote. However, due to persistent concerns of election fraud, an additional biometric voter verification system was proffered as a solution.
Across these systems, highly personal and sensitive information was encoded as bits and bytes under the auspices of bringing rule of law and democracy to the Afghan people. In 2021, when the Taliban swept through Afghanistan and seized the levers of power, they also seized access to vast swathes of biometric data and other identifying information such as ethnicity, nationality, and religion stored across multiple digital identity databases.
It is hard to say exactly what the Taliban might do with the information they have. As a terrifying preview of the possibilities, in 2016 and 2017, it was locally reported that the Taliban were stopping buses and using fingerprint scanners to identify and kill their targets. Early reports suggest that these databases have been used by the Taliban to continue this line of intimidation since their takeover in 2021.
The New Scientist reported that some of the US government’s portable tools such as HIIDE and other devices like iris readers and laptops are now in the possession of the Taliban. With the Taliban now armed with handheld portals to various digital ID systems, fears have mounted for the safety of activists and journalists, ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, women, and those who assisted foreign troops.
In this context, how should we think about the operations of the platformized state in the Global South? To what extent should we consider its presence as a product of the fanciful belief of international actors to address deep-rooted challenges? It also points to the importance of examining contexts where digital identity systems are largely unaccountable to those whose data is contained within. The callousness of collecting highly sensitive immutable data, while neglecting the responsibilities that come with it, is indicative of the power asymmetries that continue to fuel the use of biometric systems within humanitarian, development, and democratizing efforts. Opacity around who has access to this data, how the data is protected and to what degree those subject to such systems understand its intricacies, raises key questions around who this data collection is really for.
Feminist Visions of Digital Justice
Feminism has played a large role in conversations related to Afghanistan and the Taliban. In the West, a simplistic narrative about women in Afghanistan has prevailed, one where their treatment as second-class citizens functions foremost as an indication of the Taliban’s violence and subsequently generalized into an indication of the supposed misogyny of Afghan men. This supposed feminist perspective has largely served as justification for continued foreign intervention to “liberate Afghan women”.
What does justice mean then, when the platformized state is operating across vast chains of international linkages, when responsibility is diffused across private actors and foreign governments? Feminist visions of digital justice offer us a way to think simultaneously about the harm that has already occurred and the harm that may result from digital identity systems. The strange contradictions around digital identity and women in Afghanistan speak to this myopic feminist interpretation: Afghan women are depicted by the western media, governments, and policymakers as in need of saving from continued societal misogyny — evidenced by their poor enrollment in the e-Tazkira. Parallelly, these same western actors claim that the technological tools proffered, such as digital ID, would be sufficiently equipped to undertake the work of combatting this societal misogyny. It is not that these two things cannot be true at the same time, but rather that these feminist narratives continue to do the bidding of techno-solutionist responses instead of critically evaluating the role of technology in perpetuating problems of access.
So, Why a Feminist Vision of Digital Justice?
Despite the abetting nature of White, western feminist commentary on Afghanistan, the patriarchal logic of the state invites a discussion on feminist digital justice in relation to digital identity systems. The state has long been complicit in upholding misogyny through its laws — indeed the state is often dominated by the dividends of patriarchy as seen through the preponderance of men within government. Feminist international relations theorists write about the state as operating through a patriarchal logic with some states explicitly casting themselves as this.
Digital ID systems extend the long arm of the state, demanding an unreasonable and disproportionate price of biometric data for access to basic services while failing to guarantee the protection of such information. Under such a system, access to necessary services is made contingent on making oneself even more vulnerable to the state. The digital aspect of these systems makes it especially difficult for citizens to discern the ways in which their information could be misused or placed at risk. In Afghanistan, the paternalism of both foreign intervention and the international community’s support of digital ID collide to introduce an additional international dimension to the patriarchal state. Across nascent governance contexts, international actors have repeatedly stepped in to fulfil certain functions of the state without any of the accountability that an elected state would have, in a move that diffuses accountability across a shadowy web of state and private actors. When this is coupled with the introduction of platformized services — as with digital ID systems in Afghanistan — it results in both a technological and bureaucratic black-box.
In this paradigm, it is natural for threat models to consider women (primarily) and gender non-conforming individuals (sometimes) as occupying the highest risk level. However, the situation in Afghanistan shows us that lots of people are at risk from the fallout of digital ID systems in different ways, and that the safety of the majority of Afghan men who are not Taliban-affiliated is under threat too. Consideration of how Afghan men broadly — beyond those who fall into the category of journalist, activist or are affiliated with foreign forces – may be impacted by the Taliban’s newfound access to sensitive information is rarely examined. Frequently the fate of Afghan men is overlooked when their circumstances are considered through the lens of a limited feminist view — one that is underpinned in part by a particularized form of feminist justice rooted in whiteness and geopolitical positionality: a western gaze that frequently tokenizes the experiences of those outside the Global North.
Why Does This Matter?
Overlooking the plight of Afghan men is part of a larger narrative around notions of deserving victims – similar to “deserving migrants”– whose suffering and lack of threat deems them worthy of protection. This is a narrative that men from the Global South often come up against. Particularly, the coding of brown men as violent or Taliban-adjacent reduces their supposed deservingness in the calculus of western nations when deciding who is most in need of protection. A deeply racist inability to assess safety on an individual basis and instead leaning on profiling, has driven a wedge between reductive feminist calls to “save Afghan women” and more holistic calls for justice for Afghans. International actors use this logic of deservingness to abandon their responsibilities by demonstrating the worthiness of their efforts through more clearly coded rescue efforts and safe harbor programs aimed at women and children.
Though it is uncertain how the Taliban will use this biometric data, it is clear that events in Afghanistan are a pivotal moment in the discussion on platformizsed states. The Afghan digital ID system cannot be analyzed in isolation, but instead must be considered as part of the infrastructure (and perhaps even a weapon) of a platformized international order that perpetuates patriarchal logics. By failing to consider the entanglement between the platformized, patriarchal state in Afghanistan and a digitized international hierarchy, we risk overlooking the precarity of not just Afghan men but numerous other individuals that digital ID systems might also render precarious. What does it mean when we limit our analysis of such systems and ignore the manifold ways that patriarchy rears its head? What are the ramifications of not calling attention to the ways particular iterations of patriarchy — namely international, white supremacist patriarchy — requires analysis distinct from that of localized patriarchal systems? In what ways does this analysis contribute to the disempowerment of Afghan men as much as they disempower Afghan women?
When searching for justice in these digital systems, we must first locate those who have been treated unjustly. An intersectional feminist digital justice makes clearer the different loci of power at play in each of these relationships and allows us to begin asking what comes next for Afghan people who must now try to adapt to this new terrain.
Resisting Patriarchal Logics
The peculiar thing about digital ID systems is that even though their work is to centralize information, they often function to splinter individuals. Digital ID systems are indicative of the need for those in power to categorize and derive meaning from breaking down an individual and considering them in silos. Kathryn Sophia Belle’s vocabulary on “interlocking, intersecting and intermeshing” approaches to understanding oppression, offers us a feminist theory of identity that draws on the vocabulary of Black and Latina feminists that presents an alternative logic. Belle’s vocabulary refuses to separate out different forms of oppression, and has room for the ways in which the layering of oppression gives rise to new categories of suffering. The work of Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Lila Abu-Lughod warns us against homogenizing perspectives of women outside the West — like those that have often been generated about Afghan women — and directs us towards an understanding of how the instrumentalization of such views has itself generated harm. In trying to push back against, and highlight the harms that emanate from digital ID systems, we need to view the varied impacts on different groups that such systems can have. In short, we need to consider the different power dynamics that give rise to oppressions on several fronts, with roots that stretch across national and international space.
The Afghan digital ID system cannot be analyzed in isolation, but instead must be considered as part of the infrastructure (and perhaps even a weapon) of a platformized international order that perpetuates patriarchal logics.
This means not viewing Afghan women as a monolith but considering how ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, age, and vocation can have a bearing on how they engage with the digital ID system. It means accepting that some women may find freedom through identification as others may be further disenfranchised. It also means Afghan men must and will become part of a conversation, wherein their mistreatment is actively considered, and the threats digital ID systems pose to their safety are properly accounted for.
This provocation provides a throughline that helps us to navigate between these different conversations and ushers us towards a feminist digital justice that properly delineates collective harm — of a digital ID system on a collective people — and the individual needs of specific groups such as, but not limited to, men and women.
It is not novel to think of feminism as being about intermeshing power relationships, there is a long lineage of thoughtful work on this matter that is essential reading — not least the writings of Kimberle Crenshaw, the Combahee River Collective and Angela Davis to name but a few of the foundational thinkers any discussion of intersectionality stands on the shoulders of. However, the application of such thinking to the emerging nexus of the platformized state and digital justice, as well as the specific instance of Afghanistan is distinct and urgent, given the emergent risks of digital ID systems.
When the US military began its campaign for identity dominance, military officials themselves noted that people might be hesitant to provide information, and that they should be creative and persistent with their enrolment methods. Painfully, they have been markedly less persistent or creative in their efforts to protect those now at risk from the very devices and mechanisms that they implemented.
The complicity of international actors in ushering in the advent of the platformized state prompts us to ask ourselves what norms informed these digital ID systems, what kinds of patriarchal logic around domination and control are replicated? We cannot ask what justice can look like if we do not examine the nuances of injustice enmeshed within digital ID systems. Understanding digital ID systems as part of a patriarchal state opens up the ways that feminist visions of digital justice can help us identify harm.
Digital ID systems are increasingly serving as the frontier of the platformized state, infusing state-citizen interactions with internationally mediated visions of progress. Building a feminist digital justice practice able to confront the vagaries of the platformized state and incursions of digital ID systems must resist all the ways patriarchy tries to claim us: through the state, through technology, through international chains of power and privilege — even through feminist thinking that at first glance may seem inoculated against patriarchal beliefs. Only once we honestly map the intricacies of harm wrought by digital ID systems can we begin to re-imagine the platformized state.
This is the eighth piece from our special issue on Feminist Re-imagining of Platform Planet.