US e-waste export bill aims to protect national security

US e-waste export bill aims to protect national security
A bill has been introduced to the US Congress to stop the export of electronic waste in order to clamp down on operations that ‘undermine national security’ by selling counterfeit goods back to American supply chains.

The Secure E-waste Export and Recycling Act (SEERA), which has been introduced by representatives Gene Green, a Democrat from Texas, and Paul Cook, a Republican from California, would stop the flow of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) from the United States unless certain specific conditions are met.

The bill’s creators say that it addresses an issue identified in a Senate Armed Services Committee study that found 1,800 cases of counterfeit parts in military technology, including fighter jets, missile guidance systems, submarines and helicopters.

More than 70 per cent of the cases were traced back to Guangdong Province in southern China, where, the study said, the counterfeiting industry coverts them into products that seem to be new. The study concluded that ‘there is no way to predict how well [counterfeit chips] will perform, how long they will last, and the full impact of failure’.

In 2011, General Patrick O’Reilly, the Director of Missile Defense Agency said: “We do not want a $12 million missile defence interceptor’s reliability compromised by a $2 counterfeit part.” 

Green and Cook have also quoted defence experts who have suggested that malware can be placed on counterfeit electronics to help hackers and cyber-terrorists to launch attacks. By keeping non-working electronics in the US to be recycled, they say that counterfeit materials would not be able to undermine national security.

Counterfeits threaten medical and transport technology

According to the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER), counterfeits are also threatening industries outside of the military, with devices found to include counterfeit chips including ‘intravenous drip machines, automated external defibrillators used to save heart attack victims, airport runway lighting systems, and braking systems for high-speed trains’.

A briefing published by the CAER explained that counterfeiters often start by stripping used microchips from WEEE that has often been legally exported from the United States.

The body, which includes more than 130 American recycling companies, explains that the microchips used in counterfeit goods can be harvested from anything with a microchip, but primarily from PC technology.

These companies are typically certified to industry standards. However, the CAER asserts that there remains a substantial number of ‘sham recyclers’ who collect electronics with a pledge of ethical practices, but who then export them to developing countries (including China) that lack safeguards for workers and the environment. 

The US, the world’s largest producer of WEEE, does not currently restrict e-waste exports, and WEEE is commonly exported through West Coast ports, where containers on cargo ships returning to China after delivering goods can be used inexpensively.

Tom Sharpe, Vice President of the SMT Corporation, an electronics distributor and test services provider to American defence and aerospace industries, said: “Counterfeit parts can be extremely difficult to detect once they enter the supply chain. Despite admirable efforts by defence agencies and industry partners, the counterfeiters have enhanced their sophistication and the problem has continued to grow.

“Today, we are actually helping the counterfeiters by providing a cheap, plentiful supply of raw materials. Restricting US e-waste exports through SEERA would play a vital role in greatly diminishing chip-on-board component feedstocks and create a comprehensive approach to fighting back against counterfeiters.”

Responsible recycling needed to combat threat

Launching the bill, Cook, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, which has oversight of exports in consideration of potential national security threats, said: “China regularly counterfeits electronics and puts these dangerous products, including critical military equipment, back into the market. These electronic components threaten the reliability and safety of a wide range of technology.

“SEERA will ensure we’re not exporting electronic scrap materials that come back to us as counterfeit parts and undermine the reliability of technology essential to our national security.”

Green added: “E-waste is the fast growing segment of our domestic waste stream. This problem will continue to grow unless Congress acts to ensure that electronic waste is recycled responsibly in the United States and out of the hands of counterfeiters overseas.”

More information from the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling about counterfeiting operations can be found on the body’s website.