60 Minutes Showcase on Spying Hints at Dirty Secret: E-waste Contains Classified Data
The danger, of course, is very real. While most of us might’ve been cajoled into thinking the Cold War was over when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and James Bond switched to hunting drug smugglers, when it comes to technology, the race for missile superiority during the 1950s and ‘60s seems almost quaint. As 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley explained, “If China is the Asian dragon, then it has awakened to compete with the United States all around the world for resources, markets and strategic advantage.”
Most of the 60 Minutes segment was devoted to a Chinese spy caught red-handed taking American military secrets from a corrupt U.S. Defense Department employee, which served as a sterling example of how threats to national security commonly occur. But it got me to thinking about similar threats to commercial IP and personal privacy represented by much of America’s e-waste, which unceremoniously is shipped to China by unscrupulous electronics recyclers.
We at Redemtech speak often of the environmental and health dangers presented by the scenario. Just this week, another study was released verifying what Redemtech has said all along, identifying toxic elements in the emissions from cottage-industry recycling workshops in southern China that use low-tech methods to separate reusable electronic components from circuit boards.
According to a United Press International article about the study, scientists and researchers from China and Oregon State University collected samples from Chinese workers in Shantou City in southern China's Guangdong province as they removed electronic components by heating circuit boards over primitive stoves. In this "roasting process," researchers found numerous organic chemicals, heavy metals, flame retardants and persistent organic pollutants being emitted into the air via smoke.
"The most immediate problem is the health of the workers and the people who live in the city," Bernd R.T. Simoneit, OSU professor and one of the authors of the study, said. "But this may also be contributing to global contamination.”
What many people don’t realize, and the 60 Minutes segment served well to remind us, is that another serious contamination is related to overseas dumping of America’s e-waste. All of those computers and other advanced electronics that have reached end-of-lifecycle status in the U.S. contain countless unprotected gigabytes of business, technological and personal data.
A survey earlier this year identified data security as the principle concern and primary driver of IT asset disposal compliance efforts. Survey respondents ranked protecting data security as the most significant asset disposal objective, outpacing compliance with external environmental laws.
If other nations have the ability to obtain through illegal and corrupt means America’s most well-guarded secrets about national security, think of what can be pulled from the hundreds of thousands of business computers that are being shipped directly to countries that are eager to learn all of our classified information. We have seen in industry news coverage how the names of many businesses and agencies still are clearly marked on electronics that wind up overseas without the benefit of proper data sanitization.
To drive home this point, I cite another quote from the 60 Minutes program. Correspondent Pelley asked Michelle Van Cleave, who was America's top counter intelligence officer from 2003 to 2006, what the Chinese want from the U.S. She replied, "Virtually every technology that is on the U.S. control technology list has been targeted at one time or another by the Chinese. Sensors and optics and biological and chemical processes. These are the things, information technologies across all the things that we have identified as having inherent military application."
As we promote the e-Steward recycling standard to address health and environmental issues, it is imperative that we keep in mind that this standard also provides for data sanitization in addition to banning exports to developing countries. Data that may be vital to our nation’s security, our technological prowess and our economic longevity may be going directly to people we don’t want to have it.
Be sure to watch the 60 Minutes segment referenced in this blog here.