The sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government has led to a frantic attempt to accelerate online relief and evacuation efforts. These attempts, organized largely via Google Forms, WhatsApp and private social media groups, are trying to fill the void left by the US government’s failure to protect vulnerable Afghans. It could be the only lifeline for many trying to flee the country—but at the same time it is not without risk, as observers fear crowdsourced information could be used by the Taliban to identify the very people in need of rescue.
The war in Afghanistan took 20 years and claimed at least 174,000 lives, but the fall of Kabul took place over the course of a weekend. With the Taliban closing in, former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Saturday, August 14. By Sunday, the Taliban had entered the Afghan presidential palace.
But as residents of Kabul either waited fearfully to see what the takeover would mean for them or tried to flee through chaotic scenes at the city’s airport, Afghanistan’s only evacuation point, a frantic volunteer effort was underway to help as many people as possible.
Afghans and their allies had been organizing for weeks, but as the last major cities fell to the Taliban within the span of a week, often without resistance, these efforts took on a new urgency. Working largely online, informal networks of people in and outside the country—including journalists, nonprofits, universities, and even government officials who sometimes worked outside of official policy—were organizing lists of Afghans eligible for different resettlement programs or even trying to bypass the slow-moving bureaucratic processes completely.
“Real-time messaging platforms are being used to make snap decisions. It signals the intensity of the crisis and desperation.”
Mark Latonero, Harvard Kennedy School
Several groups were planning to charter planes for private airlifts. Some planned to crowdsource information on road conditions, and identify and help Afghans stuck in the provinces make their way to Kabul. Others, meanwhile, focused on more specific targeted groups such as journalists, women leaders, and Afghans who had worked on specific projects.
“If you have someone in Kabul that can get to the airport by the end of the week, please input the information here to share with air evac company and the State Department,” reads the top of one Google Form created by a coalition of national-security-related organizations hoping to evacuate Afghans who already have their passports.
Like many forms, it asked not only for contact information and resettlement details but also for personal identification numbers and document scans, including national ID card and passport numbers. Another Google form circulating on Twitter appears to be raising money to charter a plane to remove people from the country. Elsewhere, the University of Pittsburgh is using student volunteers to try connecting those still in Afghanistan with their former employers to start the resettlement process.
One message that appeared to come from an office within the US Department of State urged anyone who might potentially be eligible for a newly established resettlement program to send a long list of documents and personal information to organizers via WhatsApp, which it said was safer than email. State Department representatives did not respond to a request for comment on the origin and legitimacy of these efforts.
It’s a chaotic, ad hoc approach.
“WhatsApp or other real-time messaging platforms are being used to make snap [visa] decisions,” says Mark Latonero, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. And that “signals the intensity of the crisis and desperation of both those seeking and those processing evacuations in Kabul right now.”
How did we get here?
On August 2, the Biden administration announced a new refugee assistance designation that broadened the eligibility requirements for refugee resettlement in the United States. The new priority group expanded eligibility for those who had worked with the US military and, for the first time, extended it to those working for most US- and Afghan-based nonprofits or American media. But the requirements for would-be asylum seekers were complicated. They couldn’t apply themselves but required referral from a US representative. Then, once referred, they were expected to stay in a third country for 12 to 14 months—at their own expense—to await processing.
In the absence of a clear strategy that helps vulnerable Afghans in the near term, individuals and organizations with connections to Afghanistan have been trying to fill the void. Every day, it seems, there is a new list set up by a different organization, spread by individuals in their own social networks.
But these efforts create their own set of risks—including risks to the safety and security of people’s vital personal information, says Łukasz Król, a digital security trainer for Internews, a nonprofit organization that supports journalists in developing countries.
Most security experts, including Król, do not believe it likely that the Taliban has the capacity to hack WhatsApp or Google Forms. But they warn that while it can be easy to trust potential allies in times of crisis, you cannot always be sure who you are interacting with. “The first thing is that you don’t know who’s on the other side,” he says. It’s possible, he says, that the Taliban or other bad actors could pose as friendly organizations, create their own forms, and trap Afghans into sharing information that could later be used to target them.
Already, widely shared posts on Facebook have urged Afghans to restrict their friend list settings and even delete their digital histories. MIT Technology Review’s Eileen Guo, who was previously based in Afghanistan, has been navigating these issues in an effort to get her friends and former colleagues out of the country. She spent several hours on Monday trying to shut down old social media accounts that showed the faces of participants in programs promoting democracy and women’s rights or decrying violent extremism.
But even more worrying, Król adds, is that sharing these forms essentially encourages vulnerable people to “not take basic ‘security hygiene,’” but rather to “give out the data very, very quickly and … without doing another verification.”
Increasingly, Afghans are becoming more conscious of this threat as well, with some of the organizing groups now verifying new requests for names.
“I hope this is made by US govt and not Taliban,” one commenter wrote in response to a form that had been shared in a private Facebook group. Others quickly verified that particular document’s origins.
Just hours later, however, another user shared a suspicious email that he believed to be linked to a human trafficker. The threats are coming from both online and off.