Environmental impacts of digital technology on wider society

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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

Top 10 Reasons to Reduce, Recycle & Reuse

By Michael Owen; Updated April 24, 2017

Reducing, reusing and recycling is important for the future of our planet.

Every item we use or product we consume comes at a cost to our planet. Large amounts of natural resources and energy are consumed during production, and the waste associated with our consumption must somehow be absorbed. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” -- referred to as the three R’s -- is a simple strategy that each of us can apply to limit the extent of our impact on our planet.


Glass jars can be reused for a variety of storage purposes.

The planet's natural resources are finite. By applying the three R’s, it is possible to dramatically reduce the pressure we place on these resources. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recycling 1 ton of paper saves the equivalent of 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water, for example.


Mining for minerals damages natural spaces.

Mining natural resources and large-scale farming are often detrimental to the natural areas where they occur. Reducing the demand for these resources can help to preserve natural spaces.


The mining and refining of minerals and other natural resources and the manufacturing of consumer goods are energy-intensive processes. Limiting the amount of new resources required saves a large amount of energy. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 20 times more energy is needed to make aluminum from bauxite ore than from recycled materials.


A large portion of the energy consumed during the process of mining, refining and manufacturing comes from burning fossil fuels. Recycling half of your annual recyclable household waste saves 2400 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas linked to global warming concerns.


The large amounts of waste associated with our consumption inevitably leads to pollution of our air, soil and water. For example, improperly disposed of used motor oil can pollute ground and fresh water. The EPA estimates that 200 million gallons of used motor oil are improperly disposed of each year.


Much of what ends up in landfills could be reused or recycled.

Many of the items we throw away end up in landfills. Often these items are not biodegradable and take centuries to break down. Plastic, for example, can take up to 500 years to decompose according to the Recycling Guide website. The EPA estimates the average American produces 4.3 pounds of nonhazardous trash per day. Up to 60 percent of that could be recycled according to the Recycling Guide. Landfills take up valuable space and are sources of air and water pollution according to the Ohio DNR.


Industries developed to recycle goods can be a valuable source of employment. In Ohio, almost 100,000 jobs were created as a direct result of recycling as of 2000 according to the Ohio DNR. Recycling creates five times more jobs than landfill management according to Brennan.


With increasing social pressure to implement more environmentally friendly practices, companies are forced to find innovative technologies to incorporate recycled materials into their products. These new technologies are ultimately good for our planet.


Purchasing only what you truly need and reusing items instead of purchasing new ones saves money. In many parts of the U.S., it is more expensive to dispose of waste than it is to recycle it, says Brennan. In some cases it is even possible to earn a small amount of money from your waste.


Our planet has a limited amount of natural resources and a limited capacity to process waste. By reducing, reusing and recycling, we are not only decreasing our immediate impact on the planet but we are creating practices that are sustainable for future generations.

Environmental impacts

How Do Laptops Affect the Environment?
By Andrew Gellert; Updated April 25, 2017
Laptops have become an indispensable tool in businesses and homes.
Convenient and portable, laptop computers have become an ubiquitous product in modern life. Like other consumer electronics, however, laptops can have significant effects on the environment. Consumers should be aware of the environmental impact of laptops, in everything from their production to their carbon footprint to their disposal.

Making a laptop requires several environmentally unfriendly resources -- most notably, rare-earth metals. These materials are mined in China, which has lax standards on environmental protection but produces 97 percent of the world's rare-earths supply. Laptops also contain potentially dangerous lead in their batteries as well as polyvinyl chloride in wire coatings, which can emit toxic dioxin if burned.

Relative to other consumer goods, laptops do not consume much electricity, but they still have a carbon footprint. The University of Pennsylvania estimates that, depending on the model, laptops usually consume between 20 and 50 watts per hour of moderate activity. Even a laptop at the highest end of power consumption -- using 80 watts per hour -- would only produce 0.05 kilograms (0.12 pounds) of carbon per hour of use. Compare this to a dishwasher that consumes 3,600 watts and produces 2.4 kilograms (5.4 pounds) of carbon per hour.

When laptops become obsolete or break, they must be disposed of. The toxic materials within them then become part of landfills. Some laptop manufacturers, such as Dell, accept their old laptops as inputs for recycling programs, but the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only 38 percent of computers in 2009 by weight were recycled. If laptops are not recycled, the lead, mercury and other toxic components can contaminate the groundwater near landfills, entering the environment.

While laptops have several problematic aspects, they are significantly greener than desktop computers. Desktops use much more electricity and therefore produce more carbon per hour than laptops. Desktops are also larger by weight, so they use up more resources. As long as the potentially toxic components of laptops, which are usually concentrated in the battery, are carefully managed in recycling programs, laptops are an environmentally preferential choice to full-size desktop computers.


The Global Cost of Electronic Waste

Computers, phones, and other digital devices increasingly are made to be thrown away—which is bad for both consumers and the environment. An Object Lesson.

Apple has already sold millions of the new iPhone 7, which started shipping this month. For many who bought one, the device replaces a perfectly good, recent model. True, after a couple years an iPhone might start showing signs of wear: The home button sticks, or the glass might be cracked. Some of these defects can be repaired, although few choose repair over upgrade. Others are caused by planned obsolescence. For example, Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 10, makes extensive use of haptic features that require an iPhone 6s—a device released just last year.

And so people replace things: smartphones, tablets, phablets, laptops, LEDs, LCDs, DVD players, portable music players. Whether from breakdown, slow-down, or just the availability of a newer model, people discard electronics at the slightest inconvenience. It’s not just laziness or a lust for the future, either; the economics of gadgets encourages disposal. In some cases, for example, buying a new printer is cheaper than buying a set of new ink cartridges.

The increase in consumption of electronics has two major adverse ecological effects. First, it significantly increases mining and procurement for the materials needed for production of gadgets. And second, discarded devices produce large quantities of electronic waste. That waste could be reduced through reuse, repair, or resale. Whether it ever will be is an open question.

Electronics have always produced waste, but the quantity and speed of discard has increased rapidly in recent years. There was a time when households would keep televisions for more than a decade. But thanks to changes in technology and consumer demand, there is hardly any device now that persists for more than a couple of years in the hands of the original owner. As per the report of ENDS Europe agency, built-in obsolescence increased the proportions of all units sold to replace defective appliances from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012. The share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years grew from 7 percent of total replacements in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 89 percent of young adults (18 to 29) own smartphones; 41 percent of the older generation owned VCRs at the same age.

The widespread use of semi-conductors and entrance of new players from Brazil, China, and India has made the manufacturing of portable devices relatively inexpensive, and the difficulty, inconvenience, or high cost of repair has made new purchases more economical. Manufacturers have also used software updates to privilege newer models of smartphones and computers, invisibly pressuring consumers to buy new devices just to maintain parity of experience. And companies have also increasingly ended support for older models or the operating systems that run on them. WhatsApp and Facebook, for example, recently announced that they will stop providing support for their apps on certain older models of Blackberry.

Following the lead set by razor blades, printer manufacturers have realized that they can make more money selling ink and toner than the printer hardware itself. According to a Financial Times report, a gallon of ink for the typical printer costs the consumer around $8,000. But the prices of printers are so low that once their initial ink supply is spent, the consumer is tempted to buy a whole new machine.

If not disposed of properly, toxins from electronic waste can enter the soil and water supplies.

This idea of pushing consumers to buy new items quickly by artificially reducing the lifespan of products is hardly new. In 1924, Phoebus, a cartel between Osram, Phillips, Tungsram, and General Electric, insured that light bulbs did not exceed an expected life span of 1,000 hours. This cartel was dissolved in 1939, when Eastern European manufacturers started producing low-cost bulbs.

But today, planned obsolescence has broader and more serious consequences. Electronic waste is a global ecological issue. It raises concern about air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, information security, and even human exploitation. Air can be polluted when scavengers burn electronic waste to get the copper. If not disposed of properly, toxins from electronic waste can enter the soil and water supplies. And unlike light bulbs, which were engineered to break, much e-waste contains operational devices, which might contain intact data ready to be exploited after discard. The shortened lifespans of electronic devices, encouraged or designed by manufacturers, have pushed consumers to interpret working electronics as insufficient or unusable.

Countries like the United States regulate where and how e-waste gets recycled, but many goods still fill landfills instead. Of the $206 billion spent on consumer electronics in the U.S. in 2012, only 29 percent of the resulting e-waste generated was recycled. The rest were simply trashed. Who even remembers what they did with their first (or third, or fifth) iPhone?

Who is to blame? Consumers certainly have a role to play in the increase of e-waste—they’re buying the goods, after all. But manufacturers have given people fewer and fewer viable ways to keep older electronics functioning effectively. In the process, profits from device sales are way up, along with the satisfaction of these companies’ shareholders. It’s an impasse, one group pointing to the other as the ultimate source of electronic dross.

For this reason, reducing e-waste cannot fall on the shoulders of consumers or manufacturers alone. One possible alternative is to require producers of electronics to offer buy-back or return systems for old equipment. Export limits could be placed on manufacturers, too, where the quantity of goods that can be exported should be directly proportional to the amount of e-waste the company has recycled or re-used. Then there needs to be an effective way to insure that these returned devices get repurposed. Governments could give some form of tax break or rebate for companies that effectively process old equipment. And companies could reuse recovered parts from discarded goods in newer systems. Partially recycled devices could be sold in markets where buying capacity is limited. Or, they could be marketed as “reclaimed,” offering a social benefit even in wealthy markets.

Another option is recommitting to repairing smartphones and computers. Done properly, electronics repair might help reduce unemployment. Companies and NGOs could set up simple training centers where people could learn the skills, and manufacturers could provide better access to repair options and facilities. Government involvement in such programs would be extremely important, as the creation of such centers would need to contribute to broader socio-economic goals. Donors to NGOs might have a role to play in advocating for such change.

The conditions at e-waste processing facilities are dire.

Resale is another option. Companies like Ebay and Olx offer the means, but obsolescence still hampers second-hand use. If older devices are not supported by manufacturers and developers, these gadgets end up back in landfills. Emerging economies such as Pakistan and Nigeria, where purchasing power is low, offer promising markets for the reuse of such devices. Pakistan has a thriving second- and third-hand market for older phones already; even older Nokia phones are common, complete with the monochrome snake game.

The conditions at e-waste processing facilities are dire. Devices have to be laboriously manually sorted and then disassembled. Furthermore, used electronic devices contain hazardous materials like mercury, lead, silver, and flame-retardants. They also contain small amounts of valuable raw materials, such as gold, copper, titanium, and platinum; one ton of electronic waste might yield 200 grams of gold. This sometimes makes the business of e-waste recycling unviable. Manufacturers have a role to play here, too: for example, by assisting in the creation of e-waste recycling centers in developing countries rather than using them as dumping sites.

According to a United Nations Environment Program report titled “Waste Crimes,” up to 50 million tons of electronic waste—mainly computers and smartphones—are expected to be dumped in 2017. That’s up 20 percent from 2015, when about 41 million tons of electronic waste was discarded, mostly into third world countries serving as global landfills.

Everyone has a role to play in reducing electronic waste. Consumers can resist, or at least delay, acquiring new devices until they really need them. They can repair devices when possible rather than abandoning them. And after a new purchase, they can resell or recycle their old devices. But consumer intervention only goes so far. Governments need to regulate electronic waste, and the companies that make the consumer electronics they sell over and over again to the same people, at great profit.


The Human and Environmental Effects of E-Waste

Lucy McAllister
(April 2013) Roughly 40 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste) are produced globally each year, and about 13 percent of that weight is recycled mostly in developing countries. About 9 million tons of this waste—discarded televisions, computers, cellphones, and other electronics—are produced by the European Union, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). And UNEP notes that this estimate of waste is likely too low.1

Informal recycling markets in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines handle anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of this e-waste, often shredding, burning, and dismantling the products in "backyards." Emissions from these recycling practices are damaging human health and the environment.2

Developing countries with rapidly growing economies handle e-waste from developed countries, and from their own internal consumers. Currently, an estimated 70 percent of e-waste handled in India is from other nations, but the UNEP estimates that between 2007 and 2020, domestic television e-waste will double, computer e-waste will increase five times, and cell phones 18 times.

The informal sector's recycling practices magnify health risks. For example, primary and secondary exposure to toxic metals, such as lead, results mainly from open-air burning used to retrieve valuable components such as gold. Combustion from burning e-waste creates fine particulate matter, which is linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.

While the health implications of e-waste are difficult to isolate due to the informal working conditions, poverty, and poor sanitation, several studies in Guiyu, a city in southeastern China, offer insight. Guiyu is known as the largest e-waste recycling site in the world, and the city's residents exhibit substantial digestive, neurological, respiratory, and bone problems. For example, 80 percent of Guiyu's children experience respiratory ailments, and are especially at risk of lead poisoning.3

Residents of Guiyu are not the only ones at risk. Researchers such as Brett Robinson, a professor of soil and physical sciences at Lincoln University in New Zealand, warn that wind patterns in Southeast China disperse toxic particles released by open-air burning across the Pearl River Delta Region, home to 45 million people.4 In this way, toxic chemicals from e-waste enter the "soil-crop-food pathway," one of the most significant routes for heavy metals' exposure to humans. These chemicals are not biodegradable—they persist in the environment for long periods of time, increasing exposure risk.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal bans the exchange of hazardous waste, including e-waste, between developed and developing countries. The United States is the largest generator of e-waste worldwide and the only industrialized nation not yet ratifying the Basel Convention.

E-waste is an important global environmental and health issue. Promising policy responses have arisen from the European Union, which is defining the source as responsible for e-waste. With this approach, manufacturers are required to eliminate dangerous toxins from production.

Lucy McAllister is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. This article is part of PRB's CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The author was supported by the University of Colorado's Population Center's outreach activities related to CPIPR.


United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Recycling—From E-Waste to Resources (New York: UNEP, 2009), accessed at www.unep.org, on Jan. 23, 2013.
UNEP and Basel Convention, "Vital Waste Graphics," Global Resource Information Database (2005), accessed at www.grida.no/publications/vg/waste, on Jan. 24, 2013.
Anna O.W. Leung et al., "Heavy Metals Concentrations of Surface Dust From E-Waste Recycling and its Human Health Implications in Southeast China," Environmental Science and Technology 42, no. 7 (2008): 2674-80.
Brett H. Robinson, "E-Waste: An Assessment of Global Production and Environmental Impacts," Science of the Total Environment 408, no. 2 (2009): 183-91.


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