Photo: Matti Blume, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

Opinion: Taliban-Huawei partnership raises fears of mass surveillance in Afghanistan

In the aftermath of a tragic suicide bombing that shook Kabul in September 2022, claiming the lives of nearly 60 students, particularly Hazaras, at an educational center, the Taliban put forth a proposal to install surveillance cameras in the city’s western suburbs, citing the intention to enhance security.

While the initial idea appeared rational, it swiftly evolved into a mandatory policy that encompassed the entire capital. Despite the Taliban’s assertions of safety concerns and the need to combat security threats, many residents grew uneasy about the heightened surveillance.

The rapid coverage expansion of surveillance system by the Taliban is causing increasing worries about its potential consequences. The Taliban is actively expanding and improving the coverage of this system in the capital city. In a recent video shared on a YouTube channel associated with the Taliban, the deputy of the Taliban-controlled Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA) revealed that video footage showcases a large hall with dozens of control technicians at the Taliban’s security command center in Kabul, where multiple screens in various sizes display live images from various locations in the city. The Taliban has not disclosed the length of time that the captured and stored videos from these cameras are retained. Additionally, some of these cameras are portable and, when positioned at elevated points, offer extensive and accurate coverage of expansive areas spanning several square kilometers.

The Taliban’s active push for expanding the system has instilled fears of privacy violations, human rights abuses, and the reinforcement of their grip on the population. Given the Taliban’s history of oppressing dissenters, women, civil society, media, and minority groups, concerns are prevalent that this surveillance initiative will amplify control and further stifle opposition.

Through discussions with individuals across various parts of Kabul, it became evident that surveillance cameras had been deployed in multiple locations throughout the city, including high-rise buildings, parks, sports clubs, and educational centers. One Kabul resident expressed confusion at the installation of over ten cameras within a 100-meter radius of his home.

The Taliban’s Ministry of Interior recently unveiled plans to roll out an advanced CCTV system in each of Afghanistan’s provinces, with technical support from Huawei Technologies, a prominent Chinese tech company. The Taliban justified this widespread surveillance as a means to identify and eliminate insurgents and terrorist threats. However, the implementation of CCTV systems grants the Taliban access to facial recognition databases and sensitive personal information, jeopardizing individuals’ privacy and safety.

The Taliban’s definition of “insurgents” is extensive, encompassing armed rebels and various groups challenging their authority, such as political dissidents, human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, independent media, and anyone opposing their regime. The Taliban’s sweeping installation and utilization of surveillance cameras across Afghanistan carry grave consequences for the entire Afghan populace.

While surveillance cameras may appear commonplace in areas accustomed to government oversight and regulation, the partnership between the Taliban—a brutal extremist group in Afghanistan—and Huawei Technologies, a leading Chinese technology company proficient in advanced surveillance tools, is deeply concerning and alarming for the people, media outlets, and human rights organizations, both within and outside the country.

The project to deploy surveillance cameras across all thirty-four provinces stands as one of the most ambitious and intrusive security and intelligence endeavors undertaken by the Taliban to monitor and control the people. If successful, this project will fortify the Taliban’s hold on citizens’ lives and suppress independent journalism and news reporting, giving them greater power to censor, manipulate, and obstruct information flow.

The Huawei-Taliban surveillance project emerges from the growing collaboration between China and the Taliban since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. China’s interests in working with the Taliban span various concerns, including preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist groups and safeguarding its economic investments in the region.

For the Taliban, beyond economic factors, a pressing demand from China is access to advanced surveillance and monitoring technologies. Over the years, the Chinese government has amassed a suite of technological tools for surveillance, tracking, censorship, and stifling dissent. These capabilities provide the Taliban with potent means to monitor, track, and suppress political dissent, civilians, women’s rights, and media activists.

It’s believed that the two entities have agreed to collaborate on communication equipment, tracking technologies, and surveillance tools. According to Foreign Policy, a security source in China has confirmed China’s commitment to furnishing the Taliban with surveillance equipment.

The Washington-based Jamestown Foundation reports not only publicly disclosed agreements between the Taliban and China but also covert agreements that are taking shape. These undisclosed arrangements encompass providing the Taliban with tracking and surveillance tools, including military and commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones for identifying and targeting critical objectives. Access to Chinese aerial and surveillance technologies could substantially enhance the Taliban’s capacity for warfare, espionage, and suppression.

However, the Taliban’s influence in surveillance, tracking, and advanced interception tools extends beyond drones and surveillance cameras. It encompasses an array of equipment and technologies that could empower the Taliban to actively target opposition groups, monitor media and human rights activists, and exercise heightened control over the population.

The extensive surveillance and censorship efforts carry grave and perilous implications for these groups, exposing them to harassment, intimidation, arrest, torture, or execution by the Taliban for expressing their views or defending their rights. This surveillance and censorship also limit information access for both the Afghan populace and the international community, as the Taliban gains the ability to manipulate, suppress, or block data that contradicts or criticizes their policies or actions. Independent journalism and news reporting are also stifled, with journalists facing escalating threats, arrests, and torture for reporting under the Taliban’s rule.

The Taliban’s rapid implementation of a surveillance system, supported by Huawei and China, could have significant security implications on regional and global scales. This unique combination of US-made arms, advanced Chinese surveillance equipment, and jihadist ideology sets the Taliban apart as the only radical Islamist group with such capabilities. This development poses a serious risk to international efforts to establish peace, inclusive governance, and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it has the potential to generate unpredictable and dangerous consequences for global security.