Friday, March 11, 2016

An Outcry About E-Waste From An Unlikely Source

This blog has gone to great lengths to highlight the dangers of e-waste, both to us and our environment. Reading through it isn't difficult to pick out information relating to hazardous chemicals and materials or the destruction of third world countries which slowly become toxic dumping grounds. All of these are, of course, very bad things.

But there is another danger centered around e-waste that is being scrutinized by a surprising source: The Department of Defense.

So why is this seemingly unrelated government agency concerned? According to a study done by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in 2012 more than one million suspected counterfeit parts were found in military equipment, ranging from night-vision goggles to missile control systems. This means manufacturers of this equipment, vital for military offense and defense, isn't adequately able to distinguish between genuine processors and computer chips or the fakes in the supply chain. The bad news doesn't stop there - many of these counterfeit components can also be found in "medical and healthcare technologies, airport landing systems, braking systems for high-speed trains and the defense and aerospace industry". But where does all of these fake components come from and what's the risk?

A comparison between a genuine chip and a counterfeit. 
The main source for these counterfeits is, of course, from e-waste dumps. Several million tons of it is shipped overseas each year for 'recycling'. In reality most of this garbage is being picked through for precious metals and the rest burned. However, some resourceful individuals have found ways to process these materials to make them appear brand new. Major destinations for this waste is Ghana and Nigeria. Another one is China.

More than 90% of these counterfeits were traced back to China - the home of modern electronic manufacturing. American and European e-waste is sent by freighter to China where it is to be ostensibly recycled. The reality is that most of this waste is actually picked through and salvaged. Large industries have grown around this process, some employing 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese workers. These parts are subject to a number of harmful and corrosive processes to make them appear brand new. Then they are resold as functioning, genuine parts to manufacturers.

So what's the problem? The problem is that these counterfeit parts are essentially non-functioning. Electronic components are, when newly manufactured, subject to a whole slew of tests and produced in 'clean rooms' where foreign contaminants are not present. That's because even the tiniest bit of dust can interfere with these components' functionality.

Probably the most chilling example of the dangers of e-waste and the counterfeiting of these materials is when a flash memory device used in the mission computers for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles, part of the Ballistic Missile Defense System, failed due to a counterfeit part. This system is a vital part of our national defense against rocket based weapons, nuclear or otherwise!

And isn't non-functionality the tip of the iceberg? What about hacking or the intentional disruption of defenses? Shouldn't the American government and military be doing more to combat this threat to our national security?

We've known about the environmental, social and health risks for a some time now; these security concerns are just another addition to that very long list. Isn't it about time we woke up about all the dangers associated with e-waste disposal and start acting in a more responsible and safe way?

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