Personal data leaked from smartphones? Not so smart, after all!

Location: Nangarhar

JALALABAD, NANGARHAR PROVINCE — “Do you want family videos, photos, songs or movies?” asks the young man, a representative of a curious new industry called “content dealing.”

For a few afghani, he will load content onto your smartphone, providing entertainment to those with advanced technology, but little access to Internet.

Some customers, though, can be unpleasantly surprised when they find that the videos and photos are a little too familiar.

“I was at a party when I saw two people sending each other data through Bluetooth,” said one resident of Jalalabad, who did not wish to be named.“Imagine my shock and anger when I noticed that they were exchanging my family’s personal photos.”

Upon further inquiry, he learned that one of the partygoers had bought the photos from a dealer in the local market.

“I went to that shop and asked the dealer to upload some data on my mobile phone,” said the man, who was still visibly angry.

“He gave me photos, and some of them were of my family,” he told Paiwandgah. “I beat him severely.”

In a conservative society such as Afghanistan, it is a matter of deep shame for anyone to find out that his or her personal family videos and photos are available to the public for a small fee.

While the telecom industry and infrastructure in Afghanistan has made great progress in the last decade and half, it is still in its nascent stages, and digital penetration is very low. This means that while a lot of people across provinces have access to smartphones, few outside of the urban centers have access to a stable and consistent Internet connection.

Enterprising young men have sought to fill the vacuum: They open small businesses by the side of the road, to upload videos, music and photos to people’s mobile devices. It is now quite popular to have such data on one’s smartphone, giving the illusion of connectivity where in fact there is none. But the invasion of privacy is a very serious issue.

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Content dealer copying data to costumers. (Photo by: Gulistan Tamim)

In the case above, the man eventually learned that his family’s photos were compromised when his younger brother lost his phone.

“The person who found it sold it to the content dealer, thereby leaking our personal data to the bazaar,” he said. “The government should control and ban the spread of private data and photos to the public.”

At the moment, however, the Afghan government has no means of redress.

Awrang Sameem, director of Nangarhar’s Department of Information and Culture,  says that they have not yet received any formal complaints.

“In order to prevent these things we have formed a commission in collaboration with the Directorate of Hajj and ReligiousAffairs, the Provincial Council members and the security forces,” he said. “We are trying to crack down on the shopkeepers who are illegally copying music and spreading personal photos and videos.”

Sameem does, however, have advice for people seeking to protect their personal data.

“We also kindly ask families not take photos or record videos in their smart phones,” he said. “And if they do, we urge them to try to keep the data safe.”

Zabiullah, a 25-year-old resident of Bati Kot district of Nangarhar, believes that it is the responsibility of family elders to check on their family members’ mobile phones from time to time, to ensure that they do not have any data that can create problems for their family.

“Parents should buy simple phones for their children, rather than smart phones,” he advised. “In many cases, people take photos and record videos during weddings or other parties which end up being leaked into the bazaar.”

Zabiullah also appealed to dealers of such data to refrain from peddling personal photos and videos.

“As an Afghan Muslim I urge them all not to copy someone’s personal data secretly. It will not only adversely affect their reputation, but will also cause grief and animosity within families,” he added.

Durani Tadbeer is a content dealer who works in Jalalabad selling music and photos for smartphones. He believes that personal data ends up being misused for two main reasons.

“There are people who deliberately spread other people’sphotos and things out of personal animosity,” he said, adding quickly, “but we don’t do that.”

Sometimes, though, it is the fault of the user, he said. Personal data can be compromised when people lose their phones, or when they simply have no idea of how to protect their information.

“There are still many people who do not know how to use a smartphone properly,” said Tadbeer. “You should buy data only from someone you really trust.”

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Personal data leaked from smartphones? Not so smart, after all!

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