As fears over the digital paper trail left by former officials and their international partners grow, Google has temporarily disabled an unspecified number of Afghan government email accounts, according to reports. Following the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan from a U.S.-backed government, reports have highlighted how biometric information and Afghan payroll records may be exploited by the new government to hunt down its enemies. According to Alphabet Inc’s Google (GOOGL.O) on Friday, it did not confirm that Afghan government accounts are being blocked, saying it monitored the situation in Afghanistan and was taking temporary steps to secure relevant accounts.
A former government employee told Reuters that the Taliban are attempting to acquire the emails of former officials. According to the employee, the Taliban approached him last month asking him to preserve the files on the servers of the ministry he once worked for. ‘If I do so, they will have access to the data and official communications of the previous ministry leadership,’ the employee said.
According to the employee, he failed to comply and has since fled. Out of concern for his safety, Reuters has not identified the man or his former ministry. Publicly available records show that some two dozen Afghan government bodies used Google’s servers to handle official emails, including ministries of finance, industry, higher education, and mines. As well as the office of presidential protocol, some government agencies in Afghanistan used Google.
‘Government databases and emails may contain information about former administration employees, ex-ministers, contractors, tribal allies and foreign partners. The information would be very valuable,’ said Chad Anderson, a security researcher with DomainTools who helped Reuters identify which ministries used which email platform. He noted reports of retaliation against government workers when he said that even maintaining an employee list in a Google Sheet was problematic.
Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT.O) email services were also used by several Afghan government agencies, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency. However, it is not clear what steps are being taken by the software company to prevent data from falling into Taliban’s hands. There was no comment from Microsoft. The Taliban’s attempt to control U.S.-built digital infrastructure is worth watching, Anderson said. According to him, intelligence derived from the infrastructure can be far more valuable than old helicopters to a fledgling government.