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Tech Bytes: Protect data while recycling E-waste

Tech Bytes: Protect data while recycling E-waste

E-waste poses significant environmental concerns as more obsolete and broken electronic devices end up at landfills.

“Anytime we have a device that we’re no longer using, whether it’s broken or just too slow to use anymore, chances are it’s heading to a trash pile somewhere along with everything else,” says John Joyce, co-owner of CRS Technology Consultants. “That’s part of the culture. We’re done with this thing and now it’s on with the next.”

That is a problem, John notes. Most electronics can be recycled.

“They’re manufactured with metals, plastics and sometimes rare earth metals,” John continues. “Why should those go to a landfill and create more waste when they could be used better somewhere else?”

ABC7 recently invited John into the studio for a Tech Bytes segment covering E-waste. Coincidentally, the segment aired on Earth Day and served as a reminder that electronics can – and should – be recycled.

However, more goes into recycling electronics. Businesses that want to do the right thing from an environmental perspective have another concern to consider – data safety.

Recycling E-waste: Environmental concerns

E-waste is a term that references laptops, cell phones, tablets, TVs, printers and other electronic devices that are obsolete, broken or no longer needed. They are built with metal and plastic parts, much of which can be recycled. Unfortunately, many businesses don’t think about recycling electronics in the same manner as soda cans, plastic bottles and newspapers.

In fact, the World Health Organization says E-waste is the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world.

“It’s outpacing population growth by almost three times,” John says.

Estimates showed only 17% of E-waste was documented as formally collected and recycled.

Local government agencies have robust recycling programs that include E-waste. Lee County Solid Waste, for example, advises residents to place computer hard drives and monitors, tablets, printers, copiers, scanners, TVs and other electronics with regular trash on pickup day or bring them to the Topaz Court Solid Waste Facility. The agency notes: “We encourage everyone to erase all personal data from their devices before recycling them. Once the device is received at our Topaz facility, we strive to ensure data security in the recycling process. Lee County contracts with industry approved electronics recyclers who erase or destroy hard drives and memory-containing devices and break down each item to recover reusable or recyclable components.”

Waste management departments in other Southwest Florida counties offer similar guidance. Some private recycling centers also offer tips for safely recycling electronics.

Tip: Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and other tech manufacturers often promote buyback, trade-in or trade-up programs. These programs allow consumers to responsibly recycle devices while earning credit toward the purchase of a new device.

Recycling E-waste: Digital safety concerns

These recycling programs make it easy for residents and businesses to recycle electronics.

“That’s kind of the set it and forget it, hopefully automatic way,” John says, “but we have to trust the system, too.”

Therein lies the concern. Businesses cannot put electronics in a recycle bin or drop them off at approved recyclers and assume that third-party vendors will erase data.

“A lot of your personal data has either flown through or lived on that device – passwords, bank account information, wills, you name it,” John says. “For that to go into the trash… it’s just as easy for someone to pick it out of the trash and bring that data off it and use it against you.”

John recently drafted a guest commentary about recycling E-waste that was published in Florida Weekly. The article notes that any device with a memory can store usernames, passwords, credit card and bank account numbers, social security numbers, addresses, confidential files, emails, photos and videos. Antivirus programs and firewalls cannot protect your data if someone takes your device out of the trash can at the curb.

It’s worth noting there is no confirmed outbreak of criminals stealing data by scrounging through trash cans. However, there is not evidence they are NOT doing it, either.

John offers these five steps for businesses to enhance digital security when recycling electronics:

  • Back up data. Transfer documents, photos and videos to a hard drive or cloud storage.
  • Log out from all apps and programs. Signing out ensures programs won’t automatically restart if the device is powered on.
  • Delete files, apps and programs. Double-check download folders and empty the trash bin.
  • Perform a factory reset. This restores a device to its original factory settings.
  • Reboot the device. This provides a final opportunity to ensure the device is clear.

There is a sixth step, too, that John recommends for all businesses – consult an IT security specialist. Even skilled technicians may think a device is wiped clean, but cybercriminals can still find ways to restore programs and recover data. Only an experienced IT professional can guarantee a device is truly ready for recycling.

“Work with an IT professional,” John advises. “Just like you ‘can’ do your own taxes, but many accountants will tell you to use a trusted tax professional. Same thing on the IT side.”

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