iOS Spyware Pegasus Returns for Android; Apple’s Mac Pro Faux-pas

Posted April 4th, 2017 at 12:43 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - People visit an Android stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. (Reuters)

FILE – People visit an Android stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. (Reuters)

State-backed Spyware Is Using Android Phones to Eavesdrop, Grab Data

A new incarnation of spyware previously used to snoop on activists on iPhones now targets Android smartphones. Lookout and Google researchers announced the original strain, also known as Pegasus, last year, when it was being used by a state to monitor Middle Eastern activists using iPhones. The Android version – Chrysaor – has targeted users in the Middle East, Europe and South America for keylogging, video and audio capture and app data.

Apple Admits the Mac Pro Was a Mess

For some reason, Apple just realized it had been neglecting its Mac Pro users. More importantly, Apple execs conceded the 2013 Mac Pro redesign was a mistake. They acknowledged they did not pay Mac Pro users enough attention, but announced minor fixes in the short-term. Meanwhile, a new model is in development.

Things were a lot different when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web more than two decades ago. And he’s not too happy with recent changes affecting the privacy of internet users as he accepts the Turing Award for historic accomplishments in computer science. Lee told The Post people should unite in protest in support of privacy that they should not be forced to use workarounds to protect.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Congress Repeals Obama-era Data Collection Rules

Posted March 31st, 2017 at 2:37 pm (UTC-4)
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You may have read the news about how the House and Senate just sent a bill to the White House that repeals an Obama-era regulation that would have required internet service providers (ISP’s) to get your permission before collecting and sharing your data.

The rules never went into effect, even though the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved them back in December.

Internet Privacy Outrage

Despite that, the response has been robust, and overwhelmingly negative. Tom Wheeler the former head of the FCC wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times calling the repeal a “gift to the industry.”

But Republican supporters (the bill passed on a party line vote in the House and Senate) pointed out that other internet companies like Google, and Facebook collect and share information aren’t governed by the FCC, but by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

They said that two separate sets of regulations, run by two separate agencies on internet information, was confusing and duplicative.

On Tuesday Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that “Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the internet ecosystem and will end up harming consumers.”

And they have a point, though the harm may not be to consumers, but to large internet providers like Verizon, according to internet privacy advocates at TechFreedom.

VOA spoke with Evan Swarztrauber who is group’s communications director. He said the FCC was put in charge of policing big IPS’s in 2010 when “the Open Internet Order, took effect, stripping the FTC of its authority to regulate broadband providers,” and switched that authority to the FCC.

FTC vs. FCC

In the years since the Order came on line the FCC has, according to Swarztrauber successfully “policed privacy on a case-by-case basis.” And they’ve done so with varying degrees of success.

The FTC has been doing this kind of thing far longer, and in fact won a huge 22.5 million dollar settlement from Google in 2012 from when the FTC claimed the search engine giant had violated the “privacy assurances” of users by placing so-called ‘cookies,’ bits of information that allow companies to send targeted ads on computers without users consent.

But the real problem with the new rules is the difference between “opt in” marketing, and “opt out” marketing.

Things got weird in December of 2016, that’s when the FCC approved a new, much more strict set of rules concerning ISP’s and how they collect information. Under these new rules, in order to collect and share information on what online users were doing, ISP’s would have had to get their permission. This is called an “opt-in”policy.

When it passed it was considered a big win for consumers, who given the choice will almost always want more internet privacy. Not less.

In contrast to the consumer-friendly “opt-in” policy, the FTC lets Google and companies like them, (ones that don’t actually provide broadband service) operate under an “opt-out” policy. That’s where information on consumers online habits is automatically collected unless they refuse to allow it.

Rightfully so, the ISP’s said this was unfair. Swarztraber agrees: “Requiring ISP’s,” he said, “to get consumers to opt in to data collection is stricter than the opt-out standard that governs edge services. This would have been an obvious competitive disadvantage for ISPs.”

Congressional Republicans agreed with the AT&T’s and the Verizon’s of the world, and that’s what they were trying to fix by repealing, on a party line vote, the strict Obama era rules, which it’s important to remember never went into effect.

So what’s the upshot of all this?

So now, according to the folks at TechFreedom: “Consumers will still be protected by the same privacy rules that have governed the online ecosystem for over two decades,” Swarztrauber said.

But instead of being protected by the restrictive opt-in policy, ISP’s will be clear to collect your data on the much looser opt-out policy.

The problem for consumers of course, is that the information that your ISP is able to collect is much more detailed than the info that Google can get on you. Also, Google for instance promises to not sell your data to anyone. Instead they use the information they collect to push ads your way you might be interested in.

The repeal of the FCC rules open the door to allow ISP’s to make use of all kinds of information they can get from you whenever you are browsing online, either via your phone or home broadband.

That’s a lot of information and can include your location, shopping history, and any businesses or people that you contact via the web.

Wheeler’s op-ed points out the problem in this way: “When you make a voice call on your smartphone, the information is protected: Your phone company can’t sell the fact that you are calling car dealerships to others who want to sell you a car. But if the same device and the same network are used to contact car dealers through the internet, that information — the same information, in fact — can be captured and sold by the network.”

One final note: the bill that is now on President Trump’s desk also prohibits the FCC from making any new regulations regarding internet privacy. Ant that means that regulation of the industry giant ISP’s will probably revert back to the FTC.

And while buying and selling information can be problematic, another big problem, according to Swarztrauber, is if your ISP is ever hacked. All that information about what you do online could fall into the wrong hands. Swarztrauber said that “would be clear harm to consumers.”

So, the bottom line is the bill is a net loss for consumers who are worried about their online privacy. And the companies that you pay to get you online, can now use all of your online history to get paid again.

India iPhone to Start Production Soon; a Chatbot for India Called ‘Ruuh’

Posted March 30th, 2017 at 11:58 am (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A hoto released by the Press Information Bureau of India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) as he meets with Apple CEO Tim Cook, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP)

FILE – A photo released by the Press Information Bureau of India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) as he meets with Apple CEO Tim Cook, in New Delhi, India, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP)

‘Made in India’ Apple iPhones to Start Production in Bengaluru in April

Until recently, the Indian government was having some issues with the list of demands Apple wanted fulfilled before it starts manufacturing iPhones in India. But according to Indian officials, assembly will begin in April, in partnership with Taiwanese contract manufacturer Wistron Corporation.

Microsoft Releases English-speaking Chatbot for India

Yet another chatbot is born. Microsoft’s latest chatbot, Ruuh, is versed in Bollywood issues, humor, music, travel and internet browsing. For the moment, it will only be available in English. Please note that Redmond’s earlier chatbot efforts did not fare well, with Tay.ai. That particular bot was pulled quickly after internet trolls taught it racial slurs and hate speech. It remains to be seen if Ruuh will fare better.

Foreign Airline Will Offer Business Passengers Laptop Loans

How badly do you need to work on a laptop during your long-distance flight? A recent U.S. ban requires all laptops and gadgets bigger than a cell phone to be stashed in the luggage. To help  business travelers, Qatar Airways is now loaning laptops – for free – on flights to the U.S. A USB memory stick is offered with the laptops to allow users to save their files. Other airlines have come up with different solutions, allowing last-minute laptop use before boarding and providing free Wi-Fi to premium passengers.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

‘Tetris’ for Your Sanity; Cloud Tools Bring More Flexibility to Classrooms

Posted March 29th, 2017 at 1:40 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - Tetris, an addictive brain-teasing video game, is shown as played on the Nintendo Entertainment System in New York, June 1990. (AP)

FILE – Tetris, an addictive brain-teasing video game, is shown as played on the Nintendo Entertainment System in New York, June 1990. (AP)

Tetris Shows Promise in Helping PTSD Victims

Video games have been both panned and praised for their impact on users, with some studies claiming they promote violent tendencies. Now, researchers in Sweden say playing the 19980s game Tetris reduced symptoms of PTSD in motor vehicle crash victims. While the findings are promising, they say more research needs to be done. The game, which engages the brain’s spatial and visual systems as players align irregular polygons, disrupts the mind’s ability to store new traumatic memories. Once improperly preserved, these memories are less likely to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues

VPN Searches Soar After US Congress Killed Right to Internet Privacy

Google searches for VPN services skyrocketed in the past 24 hours after the U.S. Congress demolished Obama-era protections that prevented ISPs from selling your internet browsing data without your consent. Writer Mix, who calls the congressional move “a vile disservice to all American citizens,” suggests avoiding free – or cheap – VPN services because they are as motivated as ISP’s to sell your data.

How Teachers See the Classroom Redefined by the Cloud

Cloud tools are allowing teachers to bring more resources and content into their classrooms, giving them more time to focus on the needs of individual students while using readily-available online content. But for some teachers, cloud tools have helped students hone their writing skills through a continuous conversation in the cloud with their teachers, wherever they happen to be.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Musk Goes After Human-Computer Interface; the Ongoing iCloud Saga

Posted March 28th, 2017 at 12:33 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - Tesla Chief Executive, Elon Musk enters the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., Jan. 6, 2017. (Reuters)

FILE – Tesla Chief Executive, Elon Musk enters the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., Jan. 6, 2017. (Reuters)

Elon Musk’s Neuralink Will Connect Our Brains to Computers

If you feel you’re not ready for the future just yet, wait till you hear this: Tesla Motors, SpaceX CEO and visionary Elon Musk now wants to connect brains directly to computers. If reinventing transportation and fixing the world’s energy problems aren’t enough, Musk now has a new medical research company called ‘Neuralink’ that uses technology dubbed “neural face.” Details are scarce, but stay tuned.

Apple iCloud Hack Threat Gets Worse: Here’s What We’ve Learned

In recent days, Turkish hackers reportedly gained access to some Apple iCloud accounts and have threatened to delete them if ransom demands are not met. Apple has denied it has been hacked and said the data in question came from “previously compromised third-party services.” What is known is that about 250 million accounts are at risk. After acquiring some of the accounts that were purportedly hacked, writer Zack Whitaker says “it’s clear that while some of the data is false and inaccurate, the list of confirmed valid accounts is growing, and isn’t confined to a small, cherry-picked list of accounts.”

Accenture: AI Will Be Main Way Banks, Customers Interact Within 3 Years

Artificial intelligence (AI) is slowly pervading all aspects of life. And according to a new report from consultancy group Accenture, more than three quarters of nearly 600 bankers surveyed believe AI could facilitate user interfaces. Up to 60 percent of those surveyed said the top reason for using AI would be “to gain data analysis and insights.” That entails the tracking and gathering of customer data – a major concern for privacy advocates. But according to the report, the number of human interactions in banks or on the phone is already declining.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Mobile Tech Spans Health Gap for Developing World’s Pregnant Women

Posted March 24th, 2017 at 11:30 am (UTC-4)
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Nurses and midwives in Myanmar gather around to consult MayMay, an app with 60,000 active monthly users, for information on pregnancy and mother and infant health. (Michael Lwin for Koe Koe Tech)

Nurses and midwives in Myanmar gather around to consult MayMay, an app with 60,000 active monthly users, for information on pregnancy and mother and infant health. (Michael Lwin for Koe Koe Tech)

Finding a doctor in remote areas of the developing world often can mean the difference between life and death for a mother and her child. But with mobile technology, a host of businesses and nonprofits are keeping pregnant women informed and helping them care for themselves and their babies.

In some remote parts of the world where roads and basic infrastructure are lacking, mobile technology often is the fastest – and only – way to help a woman in labor or save the life of a child. One of the groups working in that space is the Maternity Foundation, whose app, Safe Delivery, puts emergency care information in the hands of midwives, clinicians and pregnant women alike.

The Safe Delivery app helps caregivers manage pregnancy with easy to follow guidelines to deal with complications and ensure safe delivery. (Maternity Foundation)

The Safe Delivery app helps caregivers manage pregnancy and deal with labor complications. (Maternity Foundation)

The app, developed by the foundation and two Danish universities, provides emergency Obstetric and Neonatal Care assistance, following World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on birth complications. Using animated instruction videos in several languages, the app is designed to overcome literacy barriers.

The Safe Delivery app is in use in Asia and Africa, and the foundation hopes to make it available to 20,000 heath workers by the end of 2018.

While it is too soon to determine how many women the app has impacted in this early stage of implementation, the foundation said in an email its trials in Ethiopia in 2014 showed the skills of birth attendants who used the app “more than doubled after six months” of use.

CEO Anna Frellsen hopes to reach 20.000 skilled birth attendants by the end of 2018. “If we achieve this ambitious goal, we will help ensure 2 million women a safer birth.”

MayMay

The MayMay app provideslinks to tutorials to help pregnant women learn more about pregnancy ailments. (Koe Koe Tech)

In Myanmar, where maternal and under-five child mortality rates are high, MayMay helps fill the information gap through partnerships with the midwives and nurses association and council and the Ministry of Health.

Developed by IT social enterprise Koe Koe Tech, the app provides comprehensive information to pregnant women from pre-natal to post-natal care. It includes quizzes and daily alerts for the duration of pregnancy and the first three years of the infant’s life.

The app helps users find doctors, hospitals, maternity and child supplies. It also provides a chat service where “pregnant women and parents can discuss their issues with peers,” said Koe Koe Tech’s Michael Lwin in an email.

According to Lwin, the chat service is accessed 1,500 times per month for consultations on topics ranging from gender-based violence and adolescent sexual reproductive health to family planning, positive body image; fitness and nutrition.

The information the app provides is collated from Population Services International (PSI), Save the Children, and other international non-governmental organizations.

GiftedMom

Operating in Cameroon and other parts of Africa, mobile health solutions provider GiftedMom has a similar solution to provide pregnant women and new mothers with access to health information and help improve the care they receive.

A screenshot from the GiftedMom app, with links to various information relating to pregnancy and infant health. (GiftedMom)

The GiftedMom app links users to information about pregnancy and infant health. (GiftedMom)

While governments and their partners provide information for antenatal and postnatal care, their efforts are hampered by limited distribution channels. But with strong mobile penetration in Africa, the group has been using mobile devices to push automated SMS text and voice reminders of checkups or vaccines, in addition to information about pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding and postnatal care.

There is also a chat feature women can use to connect with health professionals. With this combination and a partnership with Cameroon’s Ministry of Public health, medical personnel have been able to follow up with more than 29,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers.

This year, the developers plan to expand into Haiti, Rwanda, Kenya, Mali and Nigeria, thereby impacting five million additional people by 2019.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Apple Denies iCloud Breach; Facebook Rolls Out Fake News Alerts

Posted March 23rd, 2017 at 12:19 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

The Apple logo is pictured on an iPhone in an illustration photo taken in Bordeaux, France, Feb. 1, 2017. (Reuters)

The Apple logo is pictured on an iPhone in an illustration photo taken in Bordeaux, France, Feb. 1, 2017. (Reuters)

Why Is Apple Afraid of Forcing Users to Reset Their Passwords?

A few days ago, a hacking collective based in Turkey claimed to have access to more than 600 million Apple accounts. The group, Turkish Crime Family, threatened to destroy the iCloud accounts if Apple fails to pay thousands of dollars in ransom. Apple vehemently denies that a security breach took place. But writer Alejandro Tauber, who has been in touch with the hackers, says the samples he has received indicate at least a portion of the hackers’ claims are legitimate.

Facebook Starts Warning US Users When Sharing Fake News

In its latest effort to fight off a plague of fake news, Facebook released a new feature that warns users in the U.S. whenever they are sharing a fake story. Users can still share the story even after being told it’s fake. The alert points to sources that dispute the fake story, and if the user ignores it, another pop-up window repeats the warning, with an option to review the alternative sources.

Study: 20 Million Mobile Devices at High Risk of Attack

A new study from security firm Skycure found that about two percent of all mobile devices are at high risk for malware infections. Two percent accounts for about two billion of the world’s mobile devices. So if malware hits this percentage, then as many as 20 million devices will be infected. Up to 71 percent of mobile devices are also running two-month-old security patches, according to the report.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Alleged Rape Streams on Facebook; Brain Interface Lets Paralyzed ‘Talk’

Posted March 22nd, 2017 at 1:20 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

FILE - A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo as he poses with a smartphone, in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. (Reuters)

FILE – A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo as he poses with a smartphone, in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. (Reuters)

40 People Watched Alleged Live Sexual Assault on Facebook, Did Nothing

Six men are being hunted in Chicago for allegedly assaulting a 15-year-old and live-streaming the attack on Facebook. Authorities told AP none of the 40 people who reportedly watched the live video reported it to police. The girl’s mother reported her child missing and showed police screenshots of gang rape. Facebook has removed the video, and a spokesperson said “hideous crimes” like this are not allowed on Facebook. “We take our responsibility to keep people safe on Facebook very seriously,” he added, “and will remove videos that depict sexual assault and are shared to glorify violence.”

How People Who Can’t Talk Can Now Communicate by Thought Alone

A person in a locked-in state of paralysis cannot move or communicate with the outside world in any way. But Swiss research institute, the Wyss Center, has developed a brain-computer interface to help these people “talk” to others, using their thoughts. Patients in a locked-in state wear caps equipped with sensors. The sensors use lasers to track areas of the brain that are experiencing more metabolic activity when the person is asked a question, then produce an image that helps clinicians determine if the patient is saying yes or no.

Microsoft Completes Modified Windows 10 Version for Chinese Government

In an effort to push into the coveted Chinese market, Microsoft has modified its Windows 10 operating system for the Chinese government. Windows 10 has been banned for government amid Beijing’s concerns that foreign countries could use the operating system for surveillance. The modifications, done in collaboration with the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group, now await government approval.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Google Pushes to Close Education Gap; Smart Cities’ IoT Challenge

Posted March 21st, 2017 at 12:20 pm (UTC-4)
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Today’s Tech Sightings:

Students read a book at the Makoko floating school on the Lagos Lagoon, Nigeria Feb. 29, 2016. (Reuters)

Students read a book at the Makoko floating school on the Lagos Lagoon, Nigeria, Feb. 29, 2016. (Reuters)

Google Commits $50 Million to Close the Education Gap

Google.org is looking to slash the number of students around the world who have no basic math or reading skills, estimated by UNESCO to be around 130 million individuals. Google.org plans to grant $50 million to nonprofit groups in the next two years to help them leverage technology to improve education in developing countries. So far, nine organizations working in 20 countries will receive grants this year.

US Bans Laptops on Flights From Muslim-majority Countries

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security unveiled new restrictions today that would require travelers arriving from eight countries subject to a travel ban to check in electronic gadgets larger than a smartphone with their luggage. The eight countries are Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. But writer Thomas Fox-Brewster argues against the move for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it does nothing to thwart terrorists based in Europe or other parts of the world not included in the travel ban. Writer Alex Davies suggests the move makes sense and might be a response to a specific threat.

Big Cities See Early IoT Benefits, but Grapple With Ongoing Challenges

“Smart cities” are taking shape in some of the world’s biggest urban centers, with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies adding connectivity, sensors, cameras and massive data collection. The technology is making traffic and light signals on intersections smarter and more adaptive, for example, and in some cases alerting first responders to emergencies as they occur. But the security of this network of connectivity and the privacy of harvested user data remain a major challenge.

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Expert: Current Smartphone Design Not Sustainable

Posted March 17th, 2017 at 11:35 am (UTC-4)
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FILE - Old cellular phone components are discarded inside a workshop in the township of Guiyu in China's southern Guangdong province June 10, 2015. (Reuters)

FILE – Old cellular phone components are discarded inside a workshop in the township of Guiyu in China’s southern Guangdong province, June 10, 2015. (Reuters)

More than two billion smartphones are in use around the world and the numbers are growing. So are the mountains of hazardous e-waste our tech addictions are fueling. But a leading expert believes changing the way smartphones are designed could help address the e-waste problem.

A lot of people hold on to their smartphones until they break. Many, particularly iPhone users, seek out the latest and greatest iterations every two years. Their old smartphones, loaded with toxic metals, are dumped, donated, recycled or smelted. Whatever their fate, hazardous e-waste is piling up.

Between 2010 and 2015, e-waste increased 63 percent, according to the United Nations University. China tops the pile for that period with a 107 percent increase in e-waste and recycling systems that are a work in progress.

The problem is by design, said Ted Smith, Coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology. Smartphone components are not built from the start to be easily replaceable or recyclable. And manufacturers don’t think about e-waste when they flood the markets with billions and billions of smartphones.

It is a profitable “business model,” he argued, “where they really want to sell everybody a new phone every 18 months or two years.”

Some people fall for it, although most can do fine with what they’ve got if the battery holds up.” But leading manufacturers like Apple, for example, make it particularly “difficult” for users to “even open up their phones to repair them,” he said in an interview. “They fasten their batteries in to make it almost impossible to change” them.

With more than one billion iPhones in circulation, Apple, one of the world’s leading smartphone manufacturers, has taken steps to mitigate environmental damage. The company has not responded to Techtonics’ requests for comment. But just last year, it introduced a recycling robot to take apart its iPhones so that their components can be reused. Those include rare earth metals that make up screen colors, allow smartphones to vibrate, and give them other features that actually make them “smart.”

Samsung, a major smartphone manufacturer, said in an email it has “robust recycling programs” in place that encourage customers to participate in “appropriate disposal of e-waste.”  The company also said it incorporates the philosophy of reducing environmental impact “into the creation of all of our products – from their packaging to their materials to their design.”

At the start of product development, we use a proprietary Eco-design Criteria and Evaluation process to analyze and enhance the product’s potential recyclability and resource efficiency, and to try to restrict the use of potentially hazardous substances – Samsung

More recently, Samsung has been under pressure to recycle 4.3 million faulty Galaxy Note 7 smartphones it recalled in 2016 to avoid an environmental disaster. But in a follow-up email, Samsung said it has “prioritized a safe and environmentally friendly process for disposing of Galaxy Note7 devices” and that it is committed “to ensure a responsible disposal plan for our devices.”

Improper recycling can be hazardous, particularly in developing countries where children often rummage for parts to sell. And if the phone is smelted, the metals are lost, but the resulting fumes are also toxic.

In some cases, the e-waste is shipped to developing countries from the United States, where proper recycling can be expensive. “And since there are no rules against it, then that’s what’s happening,” said Smith, co-author of a 2002 study called Exporting Harm.

FILE - A polluted river flows past a workshop that is used for recycling electronic waste in the township of Guiyu in China's southern Guangdong province June 10, 2015. (Reuters)

FILE – A polluted river flows past a workshop that is used for recycling electronic waste in the township of Guiyu in China’s southern Guangdong province June 10, 2015. (Reuters)

Shipping e-waste to China, which also produces its own e-waste, and other parts of the world causes a lot of harm. Oftentimes, China’s recycling process entails “burning things, just tearing things apart and throwing things in a water body,” said Smith. “The children are getting sick. That’s not a good way to advance economic development.”

It is also happening in other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. “It’s a huge problem,” he added. “And the U.S is the only advanced country in the world that has refused to sign on to the Basel convention, which is designed to try to prevent the shipment of toxic waste from rich countries to poor countries. So the U.S. has all the brands that make all these new gadgets, but it’s also the real global culprit in not doing its part to try to solve the problem.”

The preferred way to deal with discarded phones is to reuse them, said Smith, even though their lifecycle is only around four years.

“There is a tremendous reuse market,” he added. “And there’s much more value in reusing the phone than recycling it. There’s some value in recycling it, but not very much. There’s a little bit of precious metals in a phone that has some value, but a lot of it is really not very valuable.”

But he believes the real answer to the e-waste problem begins with manufacturers. “It starts with making the devices less hazardous to begin with,” he said, by investing in green chemistry and using fewer hazardous materials. This in turn will “help drive the whole smartphone lifecycle.”

“It helps in the production so the workers themselves are exposed to less hazardous material,” he said. “It helps in the use so the consumers are exposed to less hazardous material. And it certainly helps with end-of-life, where if you burn the product as they’re doing so much, you won’t be creating the kinds of toxic fumes that are going on right now. So I think the green chemistry solution is the best approach from a lifecycle perspective.”

The only problem, he cautioned, is that smartphone manufacturers are making huge profits on disposable gadgets. “So until people figure this out and come together and say ‘enough is enough’, we’re going to continue to see this happening.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.