Smart phones as e-waste – meeting with Yvonne Volkart

When researcher Yvonne Volkart (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland) was making a stop over in Linz on her way to Vienna we took the opportunity to meet her and hear more about her research “Times of Waste“. Besides learning a bit more about the interdisciplinary methodologies of the research group at the Institute of experimental Design and Media we had an exchange of thoughts around e-waste specially focusing on Yvonne’s topic “biography of a smartphone”.

In Agbobloshie we observed vast amounts of mobile phones amongst the e-waste, but smart phones were still rarely recycled there. According to Yvonne the reason might be that we tend to hold on to our phones for a long time. Even if we do not use them they tend to linger some where in a shoe box till they are thrown away e.g. in connection with moving apartments. At least in Switzerland (where Yvonne’s research is focused on) most of the phones are given to recyclers, but the access to information of what happens to the phones after this is much harder to retain.

We observed that also in Austria there are a number of ways to get rid of an old phone and even feel good about it. For example promises to take care of your old mobile phone and even children with heart conditions will benefit from this. On their website one is secured that the data is deleted from the phones before they are given forward, but the unmonitored cardboard boxes that are used to collect the devices do not convince us to leave a mobile phone with undeleted data there. On the websites there is little information about partners or further strategies of how the phone are reused or recycled. As stated in the “Time of Waste” research abstract “Waste is hence considered as a “new resource”, dynamic and transformable.” also Yvonne is focusing in her ongoing research to map how the business of recycling is formed in Switzerland. According to her much of the smart phones are still re-purposed and reuse, making it extremely important to trust that the data on them is actually deleted.

While in first hand it seems easy to delete the data on a smart phone just by using the ‘factory reset’ option, there seems to be a reason to doubt its effectiveness. And there seems to be a number of guides and software for DIY recovery as well. This combined to the complex re-use and recycling practices that unfolding in Yvonne’s research makes it interesting to think about the smart phone as storage mediums with similar problematics as with the 22 hard-drives bought at Agbobloshie. Both with hard-drives and smartphones the hardware can be seen as a resource for “urban mining” regain reusable raw materials out of waste (“Time of Waste” research abstract), and the data breach can become a source of data mining regain of material for potential (ab)use.

Another interesting point coming out of Yvonne’s research was a conclusion, that compare to the amount of waste generated of home electronics such as fridges or televisions when looking into the amount of e-waste produced the mobile phones are relatively small. Yet the amount of residue produced in the production of a new phone in much larger. The amount of waste in production of new electronics is something that Jennifer Garbys talks about in her book ‘Digital Rubbish’ specially focusing on the microchip, a component found in many of our electronics also in our mobile phones:

“To produce a two gram memory microchip, 1.3 kilograms of fossil fuels and materials are required. In this process, just a fraction of the material used to manufacture microchips is actually contained in the final product, with as much as 99 percent of materials used discarded during the production process. Many of these discarded materials are chemicals—contaminating, inert, or even of unidentified levels of toxicity.”

Therefore from an ecological perspective it is not enough to look at affects of our technologies at the end of the lifespan of electronics. One has to consider the residues produced in the production as well.

Privacy and Viruses

At the ArtLab we had some discussions around privacy, surveillance and how our data is spread online, so the two first videos are points of views on these topics. One of the projects was looking more closely into what viruses are on the hard-drives. Therefore Mikko Hyppönens talk might be interesting giving a nutshell introduction into history of computer viruses.

The NSA are not the Stasi: Godwin for mass surveillance by  Cory Doctorow (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Beyond The Camera Panopticon by Aral Balkan (Founder and lead designer

“The Cyber Arms Race” – Mikko Hyppönen, F-Secure – Guest Lecture 20.1.2015 at Aalto University

Behind the Smart World Day 2 Field trip & Artist presentations

Field trip to MGG Recycling (Müller Guttenbrunn Group) center in Amstetten. Chris Slijkhuis, responsible for E-Waste & Public Affairs gave us a tour through the center, showed us their shredder and talked in a presentation about his experiences at Agbogbloshie.

After Lunch in the evening the artists presented themselves at the Kunstraum Goethestrasse xtd.


Behind the Smart World Artlab: Day 1: Expert talks

Thursday, May 21st, 2015, Expert talk evening at Kunstraum Goethestrasse xtd:

Thursday evening we started the first ‘Art meets radical openness’ Artlab at the Kunstraum Goethestrasse xtd. Linda and Andreas introduced the Artlab topic “Behind the Smart World” and talked about their artist-in-residence in Ghana last summer 2014. They brought back 22 hard drives that they were partly able to access the data. Others were rescued by the ECS Solutions who have their main office here in Linz, Austria.

Can Sinitras from ECS Solutions introduced his company and gave an insight to data recovery. Fieke Jansen from Tactical Tech Collective talked about data broker. Both talks were recorded by Thank you a lot for that!

Dr. Michael Sonntag from the Johannes Kepler university talked about data forensics with a special focus on our upcoming project.
Here is an excerpt of my notes:
Computer and data forensic is about obtaining evidence to be used in criminal court cases. It’s about finding evidence about the history of the user, and not to assume what the user might have done or not. In forensics you need to get more information that just one image so that there are no doubts left that things just happened by accident. Forensics is also about integrity, meaning you don’t change anything during your investigations. So the changes should be able to detect.
So from a forensic point of vies the hard drives are useless, this doesn’t mean that we cannot do interesting artworks with them.

A classification of data from a forensic perspective:

1.) Obvious data: a photo, a chat log, etc.
2.) Invisible data: data that has been deleted, and it can be restored. log files that are automatically created by the computer are interesting to see how the person was using the pc. metadata of images (exif data)
passwords are of course interesting to retrieve them, even when they are hashed or encrypted.
3.) Correlation data: more data of a person can identify the person and can become problematic. he recommends to mix several hard drives to mashup data.

Some recommendations:

  • There is for sure personal data on the disks. Privacy issues are problematic when we use this data and expose it in an exhibition or something similar.
  • Mix the data of the hard drives to avoid identifying one person.
  • Anonymisation of texts, images, etc. If harmless info ends up online, it can be searched and found and maybe the owner of the data won’t be happy about it.
  • Don’t use the data as it is, change/modify it in a way.
  • Use only parts of the hard drives, make a strong selection and don’t use everything of one HDD.
  • Passwords in combination with usernames, medical records, insurance numbers, serial numbers from programs are potentially problematic to expose.
  • Take care about the invisible data.
  • Use the information as a motive, don’t use the emails, but use them as an inspiration.
  • Keep the original data to your self and encrypt it in a way if possible. Publishing art based on them is one thing, publishing the original hard drive is another thing.
  • He suggests to physically destruct the hard discs  (don’t use microwaves, it’s useless, use some better force!)

Here are some photos by Florian Voggeneder from the evening: