University study finds U.S. defense contract information in 'electronic waste' in Africa

Friday, June 26, 2009

According to a documentary about journalism students at the University of British Columbia tracking electronic waste (e-waste), details of United States defense contracts and confidential military data were left on a donated hard drive which was purchased for US$35 in Ghana.

The purchased hard drive was a donation by Northrop Grumman Corporation, an American aerospace and defense technology company.

The PBS investigative documentary, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, tracked what happened to donated or discarded electronics. The journalism students randomly purchased seven hard drives in Tema, Africa. "We plugged them and in and started reading files … They were just sitting there," said Klein.

As part of the international reporting course the students then submitted the hard drives to Enoch Kwesi Messiah, a computer scientist at Regent University to see if any of the previous owners had erased the data on their hard drives before disposal.

Messiah stated, “I can get your bank numbers and I retrieve all your money from your accounts. If ever somebody gets your hard drive, he can get every information about you from the drive, no matter where it is hidden.”

The graduate journalism students under Professor Peter Klein travelled to the Korle Lagoon in Accra the capital of Ghana. Beside the polluted waters is Agbogbloshie, the largest collection of e-waste, useless electronic donations.

“Life is really difficult; they eat here, surrounded by e-waste,” said Mike Anane, a local journalist, “They basically are here to earn a living. But you can imagine the health implications.” The e-waste is burned and rendered down for copper, iron, or gold from the components.

"It's essentially this charred toxic wasteland," said Blake Sifton, one of the students. "It's incredibly difficult to breathe because there's usually between five and six and seven fires going at any time .… and there's tons and tons of this black, sticky, acrid smoke coming out of them."