Dangers of Tech Trash
A quick Google Images search for the terms; tech trash, e-waste, or electronic garbage, will bring up photos of warehouses and landfills brimming with monitors, computer chassis, and circuit boards galore. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Where do all the old broken computers, cell phones, and other technology garbage end up?” then you’re not alone. So, where does it end up?
The answer to that question can take on two forms, each with its own dangers. Our e-waste, depending on local, municipal, state and federal regulations, can either be processed locally or shipped for processing to what are often still-developing nations. The dangers of keeping tech trash local touch on the boundaries of cybersecurity, whereas the dangers of shipping it away are more social and environmental.
A few years ago, the Basel Action Network, lead by Jim Puckett, partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to track the locations of 200 technology components via GPS with their “e-Trash Transparency Project.”ᶦ The items were left with different programs that professed to donate, recycle, or refurbish the components via “green” and “environmentally friendly” means. Thanks to their tracking devices and software, researchers were able to follow the defunct technology to countries like Mexico, Thailand, Pakistan, and Kenya. Most of the trash, however, made its way to rural areas of Hong Kong.
When Puckett arrived, workers in Hong Kong had no idea they were exposing themselves to mercury vapors while they ripped apart old TVs and dismantle old circuit boards. Processing e-waste without the proper safety equipment can result in neurotoxicity in humans. Doing so in rural areas can poison the surrounding environment and its inhabitants; including fields, streams, farm animals, fish and wildlife. Mercury can get into their local food supply and wreak even more havoc. Though many of the U.S.-based companies claim they were recycling our e-waste, what they really did was pass the buck onto foreign workers who have no workplace protections from these dangers, that’s if they even understand how dangerous their own workplace is to begin with.ᶦᶦ
Of the countries mentioned, Thailand has publicly stepped up to end their imports of tech trash. Six months ago, their government moved to ban 432 types of scrap electronics.ᶦᶦᶦ The ban didn’t happen in a vacuum either. It followed neighboring countries China and Vietnam passing similar laws designed to prevent the countries from becoming information technology dumping grounds. It begs stating that, as a nation, the United States are regularly and purposefully exporting hazardous waste to nations with less legal restrictions on this type of garbage. Mr. Puckett summed this up succinctly, calling this garbage-supply chain our “dirty little secret.”
What happens, then, if we don’t send our e-waste somewhere else? What happens if we just throw It in the garbage can? E-waste will just end up in a landfill like the rest of our trash, right? The short answer is yes, but only with a certain luck. As examined by an anonymous researcher who goes by the Twitter handle @LimitedResults,ᶦᵛ our defunct e-waste could come back to haunt us, especially in the form of a small army of new cheap smart-devices; lightbulbs, electrical plugs, and really anything that connects to our wireless networks at home or in the office. Over the course of four months ‘LimitedResults’ obtained a few different widely-sold smart-bulbs. They proceeded to carefully strip everything but the circuit board from the apparatuses. Once stripped, they started to probe the boards to find out what they could extract from the on-board memory chips.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to them that the boards were from different manufacturers than the ones which actually sell the finished products. Technology is often composed of many-many different parts from all over the world, and a myriad of manufacturers. The schematics and operating instructions for these specific boards were easily found on their manufacturers’ website, which enabled ‘LimitedResults’ to reverse engineer the operation of each smart-bulb’s circuit board. Their results showed an astounding lack of any sort of security or encryption on the internal workings of the bulbs, though security settings exist that could be enabled from the factory. Once they had accessed the boards, home wi-fi passwords were revealed, along with encryption keys used to sync and manage settings with cloud-based accounts.ᵛ From a cybersecurity standpoint, throwing out a broken $15 smart-bulb could be like throwing away the keys to your front door. Home network security breaches can be seen all over the news lately; with hackers sending audio into the homes of unsuspecting parents through their baby monitors,ᵛᶦ or via networked cameras.ᵛᶦᶦ Unsecured technology is a threat to any modern household, and even more so when that technology is disposed of improperly.
So, now we ask ourselves; “What can I do? Me, a private citizen, who will no doubt be generating my own dumpster-full of e-waste in my lifetime, what can I do?” I make it a point to erase my old technology whenever possible before I dispose of it. If the device I need to throw away has any kind of memory chips in it and I can’t erase it, I’ll open it up safely and destroy the circuit boards, or send hard drives to be demagnetized, or securely shredded. I check out what companies in my area recycle, refurbish, or properly process and dispose of e-waste, even if for a small fee. I keep in mind that technology stores such as BestBuy have programs for recycling e-waste, and that it is absolutely appropriate to ask them where that technology goes after giving it over to them. The only way I know to ease my conscience, is to ask questions, and more questions, before handing over e-waste and simply forgetting about it.
At the end of an electronic device’s lifetime, do your own research. Ask the university’s Information Technology Services department what they do with their e-waste and how they securely dispose of end-of-life technology. Find out where your local e-waste and recycling vendors are and reach out to them. Ask them where their trash ends up, and what they do to mitigate the environmental and cybersecurity concerns of the 21st Century. Their answers, or the lack thereof, may just surprise you.