Why unsecure e-waste presents a problem we can’t ignore

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For all the joys and conveniences that technology brings us, it all comes with one hell of a danger: Security and privacy. We all know about using firewalls and security software to protect our desktop computers, laptops and phones from viruses and malware. But, what a lot of people don’t know is that the tech that we donate or throw away is just as big a threat to our security as any virus.

Discarded phones and computer hard drives carry a whole bunch of leftover data even if you delete the files beforehand, and anyone who picks up your old stuff can easily extract just about all of that information. Because of how prominent technology is and will continue to be in so many fields of our lives, the issue of tech security, in all its forms, is way too important for any of us to ignore. As we move forward in the digital age, each of us has an obligation to educate ourselves on securing our sensitive information, and to spread awareness about technological security to others.

A big reason why discarded technology is such a security issue is that deleting a file is not the same as erasing it. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Marcus Thompson, a law enforcement training coordinator for Purdue University, explained that, “When you delete a file (…) your computer marks that space as available, but the content still exists on the hard drive itself.” So, it’s not surprising that with the right software, anyone who comes across your old, discarded computer or phone can unearth all those old files, from pictures to passwords and everything in between. For example, according to PBS Frontline/World, drives recovered from an e-waste dump in Ghana were found to contain “credit card numbers, account information (and) records of online transactions the original owners may not have realized were even there.”

Of course, it doesn’t just stop at computers and phones. As CBS San Francisco reported in 2015, scanning a barcode on a boarding pass for United Airlines was all it took for Winston Krone, a cyber forensic security consultant, to get access to the boarding pass owner’s account, where the owner’s phone number, home address and other information was available. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but the facts don’t present a comforting picture: Anything that is connected to our personal information, whether a barcode or an old hard drive, can be a huge threat to our privacy and security. This is precisely why none of us can ignore the problem of security in the digital age.

So, the easiest way to begin protecting your privacy is to read up on good tech habits, especially when it comes to passwords, the safe use of public Wi-Fi and avoiding malware, scams, phishing and the like. If you would still like to sell, donate or just throw away your old technology, you still can, but you should be careful to make sure you completely obliterate your sensitive data off your old tech before you do so. Some options include taking your device to an e-recycling company that will wipe the data for you or doing it yourself with data-erasing software. Of course, you could simply smash your hard drive with a brick, but I would advocate something less messy. On top of that, be sure to shred any kind of physical document with sensitive information, like medical records, bank statements and of course, flight boarding passes.

An easy way of solving this issue is for tech companies to do more to spread awareness about security to their current and potential customers. The benefit to the customer is obvious. The benefit to the companies is that they will become more valuable in the eyes of customers and thus get them to buy more products. If you feel like you’re buying a secure product from a certain company, you’re more likely to buy more things from them and recommend them to others. Everyone benefits!

The most important takeaway here is that protecting our sensitive information and privacy is going to be an ongoing problem, but one that we can protect ourselves against. Technology is always getting more advanced, and naturally, so are the dangers that plague it. Because we all have some interaction with technology, whether just to buy things or to program or to travel the world, the issue of e-security is one that demands our constant attention. Not only should we keep ourselves up-to-date on good tech habits, we also ought to spread awareness about this issue to others who may not already be aware, or are unknowingly putting their own sensitive data in danger. In other words, be both tech-savvy and a good tech Samaritan.

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