The Risk Of E-Waste At Your Company

Most security practitioners are not aware of a very real threat to their company’s image and reputation posed by E-waste. I was involved, as a consultant, in the physical security portion of a lengthy review concerning E-waste which poses serious and...


Most security practitioners are not aware of a very real threat to their company’s image and reputation posed by E-waste. I was involved, as a consultant, in the physical security portion of a lengthy review concerning E-waste which poses serious and often unmanaged environmental and data security threats to any company that decides to get rid of their old and out of date computers.

I watched a "60 Minutes" documentary with the intent of following computers dropped off by individuals in good faith to a recycling location, placed in a container and taken to China and dismantled for parts, pieces and metals by children. The old electronics have toxic components which can contaminate the people, ground and water in the areas where this takes place. Although my main focus is on the physical security aspects, I am also interested in the whole problem so I can articulate the complete risk picture to a client.

Discarded computers, servers and other electronic hardware make up one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the United States. Electronic waste or “e-waste” contains toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and chromium. In addition, these devices often hold confidential or personal information saved on internal storage media. While a handful of retailers, resellers, and distributors handle e-waste responsibly, many dispose of electronics in a manner that threatens human health, the environment, and data security. As a result, companies that do not handle take-back electronics and e-waste responsibly face increasing public relations risk and potentially significant legal liabilities.

Computers and other electronic devices contain notable amounts of toxic metals. A typical desktop computer system has 57 grams of lead, 2.5 grams of barium, 0.01 grams of arsenic, 0.8 grams of antimony, and various amounts of other toxic metals.4 Cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors contain four pounds of lead.5 These toxics are dangerous to human health and the environment.

According to a white paper by TechTurn, a company in the forefront of clean tech recycling, while technology to safely refurbish or recycle used electronics is available, the majority of e-waste ends up in developing countries where it is often disposed of in a manner that damages human health and the environment. A United Nations Environment Program-sponsored report estimates that the trans boundary movement of e-waste will soon reach 50 million tons a year; principally flowing into developing countries.6 Disassembly frequently involves open-air burning and acid baths to recover metals. These practices expose unprotected workers to serious health hazards. A host of research documents toxics in the air, water, soil, and blood of town residents where e-waste is improperly disposed.7 E-waste not shipped to the developing world is frequently discarded in landfills where it can potentially leach toxic substances like mercury, lead, and chromium into groundwater.

An increasing number of non-governmental organization (NGO) reports, news headlines, and government regulations focused on the environmental impacts of e-waste demonstrate growing stakeholder concern and underscore the importance of managing e-waste responsibly. Companies touting the environmental and security benefits of take-back or e-waste disposal programs are particularly vulnerable to criticisms of hypocrisy.

Activist NGOs are engaged on e-waste and have vocally criticized waste handlers for irresponsible practices. For example, the Basel Action Network (BAN), an advocacy group founded to curb the export of e-waste from the U.S., published a sneering criticism of EarthECycle for falsely claiming to recycle waste safely, when in reality it sells the take-back electronics downstream to the highest bidder. BAN tracked computer equipment that EarthECycle collected at a collection event in Pennsylvania to ports in China and South Africa. The story made it into the New York Times.8 A 2008 General Accounting Office sting operation uncovered a similar operation and found 42 U.S. companies willing to illegally ship e-waste to Hong Kong.9 NGOs stand ready to capitalize on any misstep in the handling e-waste by a major retailer or corporation in order to raise awareness and generate momentum for e-waste legislation.

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