Environmental impacts of digital technology on wider society

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Ethical impacts


Legal impacts


Environmental impacts


Issues of privacy



Syllabus content

Content   Additional Information

Explain the current ethical, legal and environmental impacts and risks of digital technology on society. Where data privacy issues arise these should be considered.



Exam questions will be taken from the following areas:

  • cyber security
  • mobile technologies
  • wireless networking
  • cloud storage
  • theft of computer code
  • issues around copyright of algorithms
  • cracking
  • hacking
  • wearable technologies
  • computer based implants.

Students will be expected to understand and explain the general principles behind the issues rather than have detailed knowledge on specific issues.

Students should be aware that ordinary citizens normally value their privacy and may not like it when governments or security services have too much access.

Students should be aware that governments and security services often argue that they cannot keep their citizens safe from terrorism and other attacks unless they have access to private data.


Environmental impacts - contents


Environmental impacts - student summary

This is a student summary of the video that you are about to see. You will make your own summary and it will be posted here.

Computers have a negative impact to the environment as well as the usage of computers. Many electronic products such as computers are discarded with a predicted amount of 20- 50 million tonnes generated every year, most of this waste ends in landfills in China, India, Pakistan, Ghana, and Nigeria. This waste has a negative impact on the environment since the heavy metals and dangerous chemicals make up these electronics and pose health risks to the entire country. These heavy metals contain beryllium, cadmium, lead and mercury and the waste contains chemicals which are toxic and help contribute to global warming. Electronic waste causes air pollution, water contamination and human health problems in developing countries where electronic waste is place in landfills. Electronic waste contains gold, silver and cooper, people in developing countries attempt to extract these materials by burning the substance which releases hazardous smoke into the air and creates a poor air quality with so much pollution. Toxins from the air and materials reach the groundwater or drinking water which posses a huge health risk. In developing countries children and adults gain disease due to the existence of electronic waste which causes skin cancer, lung cancer, brain damage, kidney disease and abortion. Computers also cause unnecessary waste of paper by printing files and emails, most office waste is made out of paper. People who use computers never turn the actual device off which wastes a large amount of electricity that could have been potentially saved and reduce the amount of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels. Computers have a negative impact on the health of its user such as the following diseases: arthritis, sleeping disorders such as frequently waking up during the night or having insomnia, back pain for staying in the same sitting position, headaches and poor attention spam in which you regard single tasks as boring and makes you anxious. Watching the screen of the computer that contains lights can burn your retina and cause blindness. Constant use of computers can mess with your mentally and dissolve you from your personal and social life, it will simply become an addiction and cause behavioural problems in which you choose computers to resolve your personal stress and problems in life. This will require rehab or simply the removal of the electronic device for a long period of time to help the user gain control of his/ her lifestyle.

Environmental impacts video

Thomas Naadi Bitlegma investigates the grave effects that technological waste (e-waste) has on the environment in Ghana and the impact it has on the lives of those who are drawn to work with such hazardous material.



e-waste A growing environmental and health disaster in Ghana

Using Word, create your own summary of the video, adding information from other sources (such as the other videos on this page) to improve the quality and range of your work.

Environmental impacts slideshow

There is a 20 second intro in black to get past but the content is powerful and adds to the overall view on the topic.


Environmental impacts video 2

This is another video that will contribute to your commentary on e-waste


Environmental impacts video 3

This is another video that will contribute to your commentary on e-waste



A typical computer has many negative influences on the environment, anywhere from the manufacturing of computers to the distribution of computers. This has caused many questions and awareness among individuals who are concerned with the negative influences on the environment; which may cause hurdles for the new generations to come. There are various ways one should manufacture, buy, use and dispose computers so the negative impact on the environment can be reduced.

E-trash/e-waste is any refuse created by discarded electronic devices and components as well as substances involved in their manufacture or use. E-trash is particularly significant because disposal of electronic items results in toxic waste that is products containing dangerous metals like lead, cadmium and mercury which can contaminate air and water when they are dumped. In a personal computer, for example, there may be lead in the cathode ray tube (CRT) and soldering compound, mercury in switches and housing, phosphor to the front of a CRT screen, mercury powder in Flat screen backlights and cobalt in steel components.

Concern about the environmental issues surrounding e-trash has led governments across the world to implement laws prohibiting its disposal in landfills and issue directives on recycling. In the European Union, for instance, some responsibility was placed back on the manufacturer in the form of directives which make them financially or physically responsible for their equipment at the end of its life (and thereby provide a competitive incentive for companies to design “greener” products). In the United States initiatives mostly come from the private sector, such as eBay’s Rethink project.

According to the article, "Electronic Waste: Where does it go and what happens to it" a January 2011 NPR story shows us that companies might not be as honest about what they are doing with your old electronics. More often than not these items are shipped outside of the United States, moving the toxic waste dump from our shores to developing countries, according to Basel Action Network executive director Jim Puckett. The non-profit organization focuses on protecting the environment from dangerous waste.

Pucket goes on to say, '“The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it,”" Puckett said to NPR.

While recyclers do make money selling metal scraps, such as gold and liquid solder, it is cheaper to have the hard labor of pulling apart and melting down pieces done outside the country even if that means the useless scraps and other hazardous materials will liter that area. For example, 60 Minutes went to one of these illegal electronics stripping shops in Guiyu, China, which employed workers for $8 a day. Despite the fumes that made the workers cough and other health hazards, the workers said they opted to work at recycling factories because it was one of the only jobs in this region that paid a living wage.

The environmental damage on the area because of all the toxic materials has left a permanent scar. Scientists who have examined Guiyu have determined that because of the waste, the location has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. Pregnant women are six times more likely to suffer a miscarriage, and seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood. Many of the devices broken down in the town came from other countries including the US, who in 2008 according to Natural Resources Defense Council Allen Hershkowitz tossed out 130,000 computers each day and dispose of over 100 million cell phones each year.

Basel Action Network suggests taking an extra step and using one of the e-Stewards, certified recyclers that do not ship their electronic waste to be disposed of in different countries. It may narrow down the choices of where you can dump your old computer or cell phone, but the extra effort is worth it.

Environmental Effect of Computers

This is an extract from a radio program - you don't have to agree with the user but their views are interesting and should make you think a little.

Many people suppose that computers are environmentally benign. Silicon valley may be badly polluted, but the product itself seems not to disrupt nature on anything like the scale of, for example, automotive technology. Computers may even have certain environmental advantages. They are at least alleged to save paper. And, by keeping us glued for long periods of our lives to video display terminals, they might even keep us out of mischief, since nature is usually the loser when we manage to tear ourselves away from our electronic lives for some real-time interaction.

The saving of paper is possible in theory; but in practice computers have increased paper use. After a hard disk crash and a virus or two, most of us justifiably mistrust electronic storage methods. It is always safer to make a hard copy—just in case. And the ease of printing constantly tempts us to put out a flashy and colorful memo or letter or report or handout or flyer. We know, of course, if we ever stop to think about it, that nine tenths of what we print will never be read—who has the time to read it?—but to see all those neatly-formatted sheets successively emerging from the printer makes us feel so … productive. 
Computers also have diffuse social and environmental effects that are easily overlooked. As hard as we are on the natural world when we meet it face to face, we may be harder still if we entirely insulate ourselves from it, as we do when we spend the day tethered to a video display terminal. We can’t care about what we don’t know, and we will not preserve what we can’t care about.

Moreover, very the act of sitting at a computer is, contrary to first appearances, not environmentally benign. For, while we sit, our lives are being maintained by a myriad of environmentally destructive processes: the air-conditioning, the heating, the power for the lights and electronics, the disposal systems that carry away our wastes, the convoys of eighteen-wheelers barreling down the interstate to supply our food, and so on. We would not be able to use computers were these other things not provided for us, and their provision is (at least under current arrangements) palpably destructive to the environment. Thus, even if we were to drastically increase the amount of time spent sitting in front of computers, it is unlikely that any environmental improvement would result. On the contrary, the efforts required to sustain our lives for our virtual enterprises would guarantee continued environmental degradation.

Perhaps the most disturbing environmental impact of computers, however, is the way they displace reality. Instead of the infinitely complex and genuine world of animals, plants and human beings, we are presented with a rarified and simplified virtual world that, however fascinating, is illusory. Our fascination with this virtual world springs chiefly from the fact that, unlike the real world, it is thoroughly—down to each last bit and byte—under human control. If we know the right languages and can issue the right commands, we have over it the grand dominion of which mankind has always dreamed—utter and absolute control. We can become as gods.

But there is a price. We pay for absolute control over the virtual world with alienation from the real world. The hours and days spent on the computer are hours and days subtracted from our real lives—from real love and real adventure, and also from real heartache and real sorrow. Not only are they unreal; our computer lives are not the ones we dreamed. When we think of the lives we really want to live, when we picture our heros, we don't imagine them spending their days sitting at computer. Nor when we come to die will many of us look back and regret that we didn't spend more of our time staring at a video screen.

Childrens' environmental health (WHO)

With the usage of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) on the rise, the amount of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) produced each day is equally growing enormously around the globe. Recycling of valuable elements contained in e-waste such as copper and gold has become a source of income mostly in the informal sector of developing or emerging industrialized countries. However, primitive recycling techniques such as burning cables for retaining the inherent copper expose both adult and child workers as well as their families to a range of hazardous substances. E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food. In addition to its hazardous components, being processed, e-waste can give rise to a number of toxic by-products likely to affect human health. Furthermore, recycling activities such as dismantling of electrical equipment may potentially bear an increased risk of injury.

Children are especially vulnerable to the health risks that may result from e-waste exposure and, therefore, need more specific protection. As they are still growing, children’s intake of air, water and food in proportion to their weight is significantly increased compared to adults, - and with that, the risk of hazardous chemical absorption. Furthermore, their bodies’ functional systems such as the central nervous, immune, reproductive and digestive system are still developing and exposure to toxic substances, by hampering further development, may cause irreversible damage. Many children are exposed to e-waste-derived chemicals in their daily life due to unsafe recycling activities that are often conducted at their home- either by family members or by the children themselves. Furthermore, children may be exposed through dump sites located close to their homes, schools and play areas.

During the last few years, various international calls for action have highlighted the need of strategic interventions in the field of e-waste. These include the Libreville Declaration emanating from the first Inter-Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa 2008, the Busan Pledge for Action on Children’s Environmental Health of 2009 and the Strategic Approach to Integrated Chemical Management’s expanded Global Plan of Action issued at the International Conference on Chemical Management ICCM3 in 2012. Currently, there are a number of international initiatives that are addressing global e-waste management and trade concerns, as well as issues with environmental pollution due to e-waste.

Together with its collaborating partners, WHO is working at identifying the main sources and potential health risks of e-waste exposures and defining successful interventions. Initial support is being provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the United States’ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. WHO has recently launched the E-Waste and Child Health Initiative aiming at protecting children and their families from detrimental health consequences due to e-waste.

Impact of digital technologies

Negative impact of e-waste.

Many people do not dispose of digital devices properly.

  • E-waste is any waste created by electrinic devices that have been thrown away as well as waste substances created in the manufacture and us of electronic devices.
  • Landfil sites take up areas of land that could be used for other purposes.
  • Toxic substances such as lead mercury and cobalt can get into the soil and the water supply from the lanfills causing health problems.
  • Some companies illegally send e-waste to developing contries. Ghama in Africa has become a huge dumping ground for e-waste from developed countries.
  • Computers from British universities and colleges and even from government departmewnts have been found in tips in developing countries.
  • As a result, people in these countries are exposed to toxic substances either when trying to extract the toxic substances or when the huges piles are buried or burned.

E-waste can be disposed of safely.

  • Many businesses and organisations pay private companies to recycle their computers safely.
  • Councils also pay these companies to recycle electronic items collected at their household waste recycling centres.
  • Another solution is to donate the equipment to charities who distribute it to people who need it but cannot afford it. Positive impact monitoring climate change

Digital technology can be used to monitor the environment and transmit and analyse the data.

Digital devices are used to monitor climate change (see below) and transmit and analyse the data.


Computers use the data to build complex models that are used to understand the factors affecting climate change and make predictions for the future.

Positive impace: conservation

Digital tracking devices are attached to animals to study their behaviour. Conservationists use digital tracking devices with GPS and digital maps to track and study the lives of endangered species. The results are analysed by computers to help improve consevation stratergies. Mobile phone apps are also used by environmental groups to share information and educate people about the consequences of their actions.

Positive impact: energy production

Computer software is used to design efficient devices to produce electricity from wind and wave power. The designs can then be tested using computer models without having to first build actual physical models and then modify them in the light of the results. Computer softeare is also involved in their production and installation. Wind turbines and tidal energy technologies are designed and tested using digital technology.

Example questions


1. What is the difference between proprietary and open-source software?


  • Open source software Proprietary software
  • Access to the source code No access to source code
  • May be free of charge Always some cost involved
  • Users can modify the software Users cannot modify the software
  • Can be installed on as many computers as necessary
  • Extra licences must be obtained before installing it on another computer
  • No one is responsible for any problems with the software
  • Full support from the software developer
  • Usually only community support Commercial and community support available


2. Karen decides to use open-source software to run her business. What are the implications for Karen in this decision?



  • Product may not be fully tested
  • No support from the developer
  • Cannot be guaranteed to be compatible with other software
  • Limited technical or user support other than communities


  • Free or very low cost
  • Supportive community able to respond to individual queries at no cost
  • Range of open-source software available
  • Can have the software modified to meet individual requirements through the community


3. A distribution warehouse uses computer technology to monitor its workforce. Describe two ways the distribution centre management might monitor the workforce.


Points may include:

  • Activity tracked around the warehouse from location to location to monitor productivity
  • Throughput of goods monitored to measure overall activity
  • Monitoring location and timing of breaks
  • GPS location tracking for delivery vehicles
  • Tracking progress through scanning each delivery and time code


4. What issues may result from unwise posts on a social media site?


Points may include:

  • Behaviour while with friends may not be professional or may be anti-social
  • Comments may be taken out of context
  • Derogatory comments make a poor impression
  • Political views may not be appreciated by an employer or social group

These can all lead to:

  • being sacked or losing friends
  • missing out on a job or promotion
  • embarrassment at work, with relatives or with a social group
  • harassment at work or trolling on social media
  • loss of professional or social status


5. An ambulance service uses automated decision making to decide in which order to respond to calls. Describe the advantages of using a computer program rather than a person to do this.


Points may include:

  • Less error prone and more repeatable
  • Anyone can deploy the vehicles so less experienced operatives required
  • Automatic resource location can locate and direct resources efficiently
  • Automatic routing of resources to avoid delays


6. Discuss the problems with and benefits of large-scale data capture for the individual.



  • Browsing data used to send unwanted emails and recommendations
  • Linking data in various locations may cause problems for an individual
  • Intrusive


  • Data used to improve medical treatments
  • Recommendations for products and services may be helpful
  • May help reduce fraudulent use of the individual’s data
  • Can reduce crime and help combat terrorism

7. Discuss the environmental impact of computer use.


Risks to people in developing countries who pick over the scrapped computers to reclaim valuable materials. Some toxic components may be identified with some typical health risks, e.g:

  • airborne dioxins: damage the immune system and can cause cancer
  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): can cause cancer and damage to the immune system and nervous system
  • cadmium: can damage the liver, immune system and nervous system
  • chromium: can cause respiratory problems, damage to the immune system, kidneys and liver
  • radioactive isotopes: can cause genetic damage, damage to cells and can cause organ failure
  • mercury: can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes

High electricity use by large data-processing systems has an environmental impact


3.1 Fundamentals of algorithms

3.2 Programming

3.3 Fundamentals of data representation

3.4 Computer systems

3.5 Fundamentals of computer networks

3.6 Fundamentals of cyber security

3.7 Ethical, legal and environmental impacts of digital technology on wider society, including issues of privacy

3.8 Aspects of software development

Glossary and other links

Glossary of computing terms.

AQA 8520: The 2016 syllabus

General content


Ethical impacts

Ethical Problems in Computing 1

Ethical Problems in Computing 2

Ethical Problems in Computing 3

Ethics versus morals

Ethical issues

Ethical cases

Legal impacts

The 8 principles of the Data Protection Act

Police misuse of Ripa powers to spy on journalists is systemic, MPs told

BBC and Royal Mail 'using Ripa terror powers to spy on public'

RIPA: Passwords

The Grim RIPA

Five Welsh councils used undercover surveillance on staff

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – an overview

How Protection of Freedoms Bill will work

Protection of Freedoms Act 2012

Guide to Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations

Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR)

What is the Freedom of Information Act?

 A Short Guide to the Freedom of Information Act

Plain English Guide to Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information - a summary

Computer Misuse Act

Computer Misuse Act prosecution numbers falling

Computer Misuse Act 1990 cases

A brief history of Copyright.

Equality Act 2010

Equality act 2010: What do I Need to know?

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: Threat or Menace?

Communications Act 2003

Digital Economy Act

A Guide to the Digital Economy Act 5 – Summary

Malicious Communications Offences

What is Sending Malicious Communications?

The UK’s 15 most infamous data breaches

Forrester Research Data Privacy Heat Map, 2015

India: Data Protection Laws In India: The Road Ahead

Data protection in India

Data Protection Laws Of The World (interactive)

Data Protection Laws Of The World (pdf)

ICLG comparisson tool

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 And Internet Connections Records

Data protection not just about personal data and compliance

Jargon buster guide to GDPR

Does Facebook own my pictures?

Pirate bay

Envirormental impacts

Environment issues

Environmental impacts

Useful links for Green IT

What is Green IT?

What Is Green IT, and Why Should You Care?

Green IT: Changing IT without it costing the earth.

Whatever happened to Green IT?

Pictures: India's Poor Risk Health to Mine Electronic "E-Waste"

India: The Rising Tide of E-Waste

BCS commentary on Greening Government ICT

Privacy issues