Google has temporarily blocked an unspecified number of Afghan government email accounts, according to a person familiar with the matter, as fears grow over the digital paper trail left by former employees and their international partners.
In the weeks since the Taliban’s swift takeover of a US-backed government, reports have highlighted how biometric databases can be exploited by new rulers to hunt down their enemies.
In a statement on Friday, Alphabet’s Google barely confirmed that the Afghan government accounts were being blocked, saying the company was monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and “taking temporary measures to secure the relevant accounts”.
A former government official told Reuters that the Taliban is trying to get e-mails from former officials.
Late last month, the official said the Taliban had asked him to preserve data held on the servers of the ministry he worked for.
“If I do this, they will have access to official data and communications from the previous leadership of the ministry,” the official said.
The official said he did not obey and has since gone into hiding. Reuters is not identifying the man or his former ministry out of concerns for his safety.
Records of publicly available mail exchangers show that about two dozen Afghan government agencies have used Google’s servers to handle official e-mails, including ministries of finance, industry, higher education and mines. Afghanistan’s presidential protocol office also used Google, according to the records, as did some local government agencies.
Requesting government databases and emails could provide information on former government officials, former ministers, government contractors, tribal allies, and foreign partners.
“That would be a real wealth of information,” said Chad Anderson, a security researcher at Internet intelligence firm DomainTools who helped Reuters identify which ministries ran which email platform. “Just having a list of employees in a Google spreadsheet is a big problem,” he said, citing reports of reprisals against government officials.
Mail Exchange records show that Microsoft’s e-mail services were also used by various agencies of the Afghan government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the presidency. But it’s not clear what steps, if any, the software company is taking to prevent the data from falling into Taliban hands.
Microsoft declined to comment.
Anderson said it’s worth keeping an eye on the Taliban’s attempt to control the US-built digital infrastructure. Intelligence drawn from that infrastructure, he said, “can be much more valuable to a fledgling government than old helicopters.”
© Thomson Reuters 2021