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Afghans are being evacuated via WhatsApp, Google Forms—by any means possible

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. These efforts could be the only lifeline for many trying to flee the country—but at the same time they are 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.

Bypassing bureaucracy

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. Happening largely online, informal networks of people in and outside of 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, Afghans that 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 for not only contact information, and resettlement details, but also 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 U.S. 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, uncoordinated approach. 

“WhatsApp or other real-time messaging platforms are being used to make snap [visa] decisions,” says Mark Latonero, a fellow at 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 expanded the eligibility requirements for refugee resettlement into the United States. The new priority group expanded eligibility for those who had worked with the US military and, for the first time, made those working for most US- and Afghan-based nonprofits or American media eligible. But the requirements for would-be asylum seekers were complicated: they couldn’t apply themselves but rather, required referral from a US representative. Then, once referred, they were expected to leave for a third country for 12-14 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 like 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 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, including Afghanistan. 

While most security experts, including Król, do not believe it likely that the Taliban has the capacity to hack WhatsApp or Google forms, they warn that it can be easy to trust potential allies in times of crisis—but that 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 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 across Facebook have urged Afghans to restrict their friends’ 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, women’s rights, and decrying violent extremism. 

But even more worryingly, Król adds, is that sharing these forms essentially encourages “some of the most vulnerable people around to not take basic ‘security hygiene,’” but rather “give out the data very, very quickly and …without doing another verification.” 

Increasingly, Afghans are becoming more cautious 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.

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