As the Taliban maintain control of Kabul, residents across Afghanistan are racing to delete photos from their mobile phones and social media accounts that could somehow link them to people from Western nations, international human rights groups, the Afghan military or the recently collapsed Afghan government.
Three people in Kabul told NBC News that they had deleted documents and photos from their phones that might provoke the ire of the Taliban, including photos with Afghan officials, pictures of the Afghan flag and photos with foreign colleagues. Much of the deleted content is most likely hosted on social media platforms like Facebook.
All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being sought out by the Taliban.
One student said her relatives were stopped on the way to Kabul, the capital, from Mazar-e-Sharif and were asked to hand over their phones by the Taliban who said they were looking for pictures of the Afghan army or with army officers. Her uncle, who suffers from mental health issues, lied about having his phone on him and when the Taliban commanders discovered it they tried to beat him, she said.
“They asked my uncle if he was a military commander,” she said, adding that eventually one of her relatives was forced to intervene and explain that he was mentally unwell. “I also deleted some stuff just in case they try to check mine.”
Quickly deleting content from social media is a challenging proposition for some Afghan users. Digital security experts at human rights organizations in neighboring countries who are working around the clock to help people in Afghanistan scrub their digital footprint say social media companies have been too slow to help Afghan people safely remove their profile content and translate help pages into Pashto and Dari, the two primary languages in Afghanistan.
“You actually can’t access guidance and resources in local Afghan languages on social media right now,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia policy director and senior international lawyer at AccessNow, a nonprofit that works on international digital rights protections. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get a help center article from Facebook or from other services in all Afghan languages. That needs to happen immediately.”
In Kabul, many who are worried about being targeted by the Taliban are urging their friends and family to begin editing their digital lives, but stop short of deleting their entire social media profiles, which also serve as a crucial conduit to family and resources inside and outside the country. Facebook, for example, allows users to remove friends on an individual basis and delete whole photo albums, but there’s no quick way to delete all of one’s photos or unfriend contacts en masse, short of deleting their entire account. In the “Manage Activity” section of the app, Facebook does allow users to delete all their old posts at once.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, announced new security features Thursday for Afghan users, including a button to quickly lock an account, which prevents people who aren’t already friends with the users from downloading their profile picture or seeing their posts. Nathaniel Gleitcher, Facebook’s head of security, shared the news on Twitter.
“We also temporarily removed the ability to view and search the ‘Friends’ list for Facebook accounts in Afghanistan to help protect people from being targeted,” Gleitcher said. Facebook did not clarify if these new security features or their related help pages will be translated into local languages.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the government banned music and barred women from attending school or leaving their homes without a male escort. In 2001, the U.S. toppled the Taliban leadership and installed a democratic government that aimed to protect women’s and minority rights. But the Taliban maintained control over parts of the country and continued to wage attacks against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which included officials who were often viewed as corrupt. The fighting in Afghanistan has led to more than 100,000 civilian deaths and injuries since 2009.
According to a United Nations report, the Taliban were responsible for nearly 40 percent of civilian casualties in the first six months of this year, more than any other party to the conflict in Afghanistan. The group’s leaders have denied targeting civilians.
Now, fewer women are seen on the streets in some areas, according to sources in the country who spoke to NBC News, and many are unsure if they’ll be able to return to their jobs and fear being linked to any work, friends, family or associates from the West, fueling the urgency many feel in deleting information from their phones, computers and social media profiles.
Human rights workers outside of Afghanistan are running phone helplines to aid Afghan residents protect their digital identities and data, including what’s stored on their phones and social media pages, and quickly remove information and links to people that could endanger them under Taliban rule.
One helpline run by the Digital Rights Foundation, based in Pakistan, was created to work with Pakistani people who are victims of online harassment or violence and to help escalate their cases to social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, that can take action to stop the online abuse.
In recent days, the helpline has extended to serve people in Afghanistan too, according to Nighat Dad, a lawyer and internet rights activist who is the executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation and serves on Facebook’s Oversight Board.
Dad said the helpline has received a steady stream of calls from people in Afghanistan looking for ways to quickly scrub their online identities and recommendations for installing a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that helps to hide a user’s web browsing history and location. The helpline is run primarily in English, Urdu and Punjabi, but also has support from volunteers who speak Pashto and Sindhi, two languages spoken in Afghanistan.
Dad says she’s received many requests for digital security help from women and journalists who fear for their lives.
“I’ve been getting requests from activists and computer engineers and people in civil society organizations about security and deletion of their data. Most of them are also trying to find ways to leave the country, but their online lives are also kind of a lifeline for them,” which is why few people want to delete their profiles entirely, she said.
Dad also said that the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group that works to periodically capture snapshots of the internet that can be easily searched in case content is deleted, needs to take action.
“It’s not just social media platforms; it’s also on the web,” Dad said. “The Internet Archive really needs to step up and work with the international civil society groups who are already in touch with Afghan people on the ground.”
The Internet Archive did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another helpline run by AccessNow also has been busy fielding calls from Afghan people rushing to purge their digital footprint. Human rights workers at AccessNow and the Digital Rights Foundation can help escalate concerns to social media companies from users, but many people who need the support in Afghanistan may not be aware these helplines exist, Dad said.
“I think the challenge with platforms is that sometimes they don’t want to make tools generally available on a fast-track basis for human rights defenders,’’ said Chima of AccessNow.
Still, advocacy groups like AccessNow and Human Rights First have been working to translate and distribute digital security guides in local Afghan languages.
Beyond social media content, people in Afghanistan are deleting apps off their phone and data off their computers to protect themselves in case their devices are searched and seized.
One person, who recently travelled from Herat to Kabul, said he had deleted his Yahoo, Gmail and Skype apps to ensure that the Taliban could not find out who he worked for or who he had spoken to.
Another person in Kabul said he had burned any document linking him to the Western world, including his résumé, and asked friends to change the name of a WhatsApp group where refugee visas were discussed.
“My résumé does not mean anything in this emirate of Talibs,” he said.