According to a person familiar with the situation, Google has temporarily blocked an undefined number of Afghan government email accounts as concerns rise over the digital paper trail left by previous officials and their international partners.
In the weeks since the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan from a US-backed government, stories have highlighted how the new rulers may use biometric databases to track down their foes.
In a statement on Friday, Alphabet Inc’s Google stopped short of confirming that Afghan government accounts were being locked down, saying that the company was monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and “taking temporary actions to secure relevant accounts.”
One employee of the former government has told Reuters the Taliban are seeking to acquire former officials’ emails.
Late last month the employee said that the Taliban had asked him to preserve the data held on the servers of the ministry he used to work for.
“If I do so, then they will get access to the data and official communications of the previous ministry leadership,” the employee said.
The employee stated that he refused to comply and has since gone into hiding. Out of concern for the man’s safety, Reuters is not identifying him or his former government.
According to publicly available mail exchanger records, over two dozen Afghan government entities, including the ministries of finance, industry, higher education, and mining, used Google’s servers to process official emails. According to the documents, Afghanistan’s presidential protocol office, as well as other local government agencies, used Google.
Controlling government databases and emails might give information on former administration officials, ex-ministers, government contractors, tribal friends, and foreign partners.
“It would give a real wealth of information,” said Chad Anderson, a security researcher with internet intelligence firm DomainTools who helped Reuters identify which ministries ran which email platform. “Just even having an employee list on a Google Sheet is a big problem,” he said, citing reports of reprisals against government workers.
Mail exchanger records show that Microsoft Corp’s email services were also used by several Afghan government agencies, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency. But it isn’t clear what steps, if any, the software firm is taking to prevent data from falling into the hands of the Taliban.
Microsoft declined comment.
Anderson said the Taliban’s attempt to control U.S.-built digital infrastructure was worth keeping an eye on. Intelligence drawn from that infrastructure, he said, “may be far more valuable to a fledgling government than old helicopters.”