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Dumped hard drives with US defense data have turned up for open sale in a West African market.

A team of Canadian journalism students bought a hard drive containing information on multi-million dollar contracts between military contractor Northrop Grumman and the Pentagon for just $40 in a market near Accra, Ghana. The exercise was part of shooting a documentary on e-waste by Vancouver journalism students, researching what happens to the West's discarded and donated electronics.

"You'd think a security contractor that constantly deals with very secret proprietary information would probably want to wipe their drives," Blake Sifton, one of the three graduate journalism students told CBC. The team bought seven hard drives at a market in the port of Tema, a major point of entry for electronic waste from Europe and North America into Africa.

Northrop Grumman is reported to be investigating how an unencrypted hard drive containing sensitive data on the firm ended up on an African market, in violation of its established kit disposal procedures.

"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," Northrop Grumman told CBC.

A documentary of the students' research, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, aired in the PBS program Frontline/World on Tuesday. The disposal of electronic waste is controlled by European and US regulations but spare - often broken - kit often finds its way to Africa and other regions of the developing world where it is dumped. Cannibalized parts end up on markets while the rest of the kit is piled together and burned.

Sifton recalled seeing seven fires spewing "black, sticky, acrid smoke" at one Ghanian dump. "The ground is just scorched absolutely everywhere. Everywhere you walk, there's shards of plastic and metal and glass protruding from the ground."

The fires are used to extract scrap metal, valued at just 50 cents a kilogram, which locals use to scratch out a meager existence. It's the effect on the local environment and people of the West's throw-away culture around electronic kit - rather than the information security element, which is well understood - that Sifton and his colleagues are trying to highlight.

Sifton added that he did visit universities in Ghana supplied with computers donated from the West that would have otherwise been unaffordable. ®

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