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UBC graduate journalism students Heba Elasaad (far left), Krysia Collyer (second from left), Blake Sifton (centre) and Prof. Dan McKinney (far right) spent 10 days in February in Ghana shooting a documentary on e-waste. ((Courtesy of Blake Sifton))

A hard drive containing information about multimillion-dollar U.S. defence contracts was obtained in Ghana by a group of Vancouver journalism students as they probed what happens to developed nations' discarded and donated electronics.

"It's pretty shocking," said Blake Sifton, one of three UBC graduate journalism students who purchased the device containing information related to contracts between the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and military contractor Northrop Grumman. The hard drive cost the students just $40.

"You'd think a security contractor that constantly deals with very secret proprietary information would probably want to wipe their drives," Sifton said Tuesday.

He visited Ghana for 10 days in February with classmates Heba Elasaad and Krysia Collyer and Prof. Dan McKinney while making the documentary Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground for an international reporting course.

The finished documentary looks at problems arising as discarded computers, televisions and other "e-waste" make their way from North America and Europe to the markets and slums of West Africa. It was broadcast Tuesday on the season finale of the PBS program Frontline/World.

'We plugged them in and started reading files … they were just sitting there.' — Peter Klein, UBC

The team bought seven hard drives at a bustling market in Tema, a major port near the capital city of Accra where a lot of electronic waste from Europe and North America enters Africa. One of the unformatted drives contained personal information and photos from a family in the U.K. Another was from New Zealand, and another contained the U.S. security data.

Special skills or software weren't required to access the data, said Peter Klein, who teaches the international reporting course and supervised the documentary project.

"We plugged them in and started reading files …. They were just sitting there."

Northrop Grumman declined to be interviewed by the students, but said it was looking into how the hard drive got to the Ghanaian market, and asked the students to return it, which they did not.

In a statement emailed to CBC News Tuesday evening, the company said it has a detailed procedure for disposing of equipment such as hard drives.

"Based on the documents we were shown, we believe this hard drive may have been stolen after one of our asset-disposal vendors took possession of the unit," the company said, adding that "no company can inoculate itself completely against crime." 

Though the export of e-waste is technically banned by international treaties, it often winds up on long journeys to the developing world, the students found.

Some students in the class followed the e-waste to China and India — countries where e-waste is known to be dumped.

Many people aren't aware of the other path e-waste can take — to Africa, via donations of used electronics, Klein said.

Sifton, who graduated in May, said many exporters know that most computers they bring into Ghana aren't working.

Parts that work may be sold at the market, while the rest ends up in a nearby dump known as Agbogbloshie.

Charred toxic wasteland

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'It's incredibly difficult to breathe' at the dump, said Blake Sifton, as up to seven fires are typically spewing 'black, sticky, acrid smoke' at any one time. ((UBC Graduate School of Journalism))

"It's essentially this charred toxic wasteland," Sifton recalled Tuesday. "The ground is just scorched absolutely everywhere. Everywhere you walk, there's shards of plastic and metal and glass protruding from the ground."

Boys scramble about in flip-flops, helping young men smash piles of old computer monitors, televisions, and radios, rip out the wires, and burn them in fires fed by insulation from old refrigerators. In that way, they extract lumps of copper that they sell for less than 50 cents a kilogram, Sifton said.

"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."

After visiting the dump, Sifton would spend 20 minutes trying to clean the dark, smoky residue off his skin.

Separated from the dump by a toxic, lifeless river was a shantytown of metal and wood shacks. Despite the horrific living conditions, however, the residents were very generous and welcoming, Sifton recalled.

People who donate their computers typically don't picture them ending up in either Agbogbloshie or the market in Tema, but put to good use.

Sifton said he did visit universities in Ghana equipped with computers that would have been unaffordable if they hadn't been donated.

He fears that people will increasingly start donating computers without the hard drives, rendering them useless and compounding the problem.

Hard drives can be safely donated: experts

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One of the hard drives contained personal information and photos of a family in the U.K. Another contained sensitive data about U.S. defence contracts. ((UBC Graduate School of Journalism))

Fiaaz Walji, senior director of sales for Websense Inc., a computer, internet and data security firm, said the case involving the Northrop Grumman data is scary, and when people don't erase their hard drives before disposal, "the risks are huge."

"If you look at some of the bad guys … this is part of what they do," he said. "They go and scour hard drives and look for information," such as personal information that can be used in identity theft and fraud.

Nevertheless, Walji doesn't think it's necessary to destroy the hard drive.

"That doesn't help from a recycling perspective."

He said high-level data wiping methods that write over the old data should be sufficient.

Cliff Missen, director of a project that has donated hundreds of computers to African universities, said he has never heard of anyone in Africa recovering data from a hard drive that has been wiped three or four times, even though it's theoretically possible.

Missen's Widernet project at the University of Iowa has donated hundreds of computers, mainly from corporate donors, to universities in Ethiopia, Liberia and Nigeria. Most arrive with "just about everything" on the hard drive, but Widernet erases them, refurbishes the computers with extra memory, and packages up spare parts, before shipping them off.

Even though the computers are only delivered as part of computer training programs, the cost of security means some are stolen and may not end up where they were intended, he said.

Consumers should be vigilant: Sifton

Meanwhile, Sifton hopes people won't get too caught up in the cybersecurity element of the story his team has been trying to tell.

"The big picture here is that there's thousands of tonnes of toxic waste — because we want the newer computer, newer TV, or the newer cellphone — being sent and poisoning children in Ghana," he said.

He wants people to think about whether they really need a new, bigger, flat-screen TV before throwing their old one out.

But he acknowledged that when electronics do get too old, it isn't easy for consumers to know what to do with them.

"You don't really know where your computer's going to end up, even if you have the best intentions. It's hard …. I just hope people will think twice and maybe be a little more vigilant when they're donating their computer."