According to a source familiar with the situation, Google has temporarily disabled an unspecified number of Afghan government email accounts, as concerns grow about the digital trail left by former officials and their international partners.
Reports have surfaced in the weeks since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan from a US-backed government, highlighting how biometric and Afghan payroll databases could be used by the new rulers to track down their foes.
Alphabet's Google said in a statement on Friday that it was monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and "taking temporary actions to secure relevant accounts," but did not confirm that Afghan government accounts were being locked down.
According to a former government employee, the Taliban are attempting to obtain the emails of former officials.
The employee said late last month that the Taliban had asked him to keep the data on the servers of the ministry where he used to work.
"If I do so, they will have access to the previous ministry leadership's data and official communications," the employee explained.
According to the employee, he refused to comply and has since gone into hiding. Out of concern for the man's safety, Reuters is not naming him or his former ministry.
According to publicly available mail exchanger records, about two dozen Afghan government bodies, including the ministries of finance, industry, higher education, and mines, used Google's servers to handle official emails. According to the records, the office of the presidential protocol in Afghanistan, as well as some local government bodies, used Google.
Information about former administration employees, ex-ministers, government contractors, tribal allies, and foreign partners could be obtained by commanding government databases and emails.
"It would provide a wealth of information," said Chad Anderson, a security researcher with DomainTools, who assisted Reuters in determining which ministries used which email platform. "Having an employee list on a Google Sheet is a big problem," he said, citing reports of government workers facing retaliation.
Microsoft Corp.'s email services were also used by several Afghan government agencies, including the ministry of foreign affairs and the presidency, according to mail exchanger records. However, it's unclear what steps, if any, the software company is taking to prevent data from falling into the Taliban’s hands.
Microsoft declined to comment.
The Taliban's attempt to control U.S.-built digital infrastructure, according to Anderson, is worth keeping an eye on. "Maybe far more valuable to a fledgling government than old helicopters," he said of intelligence derived from that infrastructure.