When Smartphones Were Linked to More Than 5 Million Deaths - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Smartphones Were Linked to More Than 5 Million Deaths

When Smartphones Were Linked to More Than 5 Million Deaths

By Barbara Fletcher


Because you should know what’s inside your phone.

By Barbara Fletcher

It’s no secret we’re all addicted to smartphones. U.S. users check their phones at least 17 times a day. In countries like Thailand, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa, that average jumps to a staggering 40 times. And yet, as we text, snap selfies and post to social media, we probably don’t give much thought to how our precious devices are made. Did you know, for example, that smartphones, computers and tablets contain four minerals that have contributed to some of the world’s worst atrocities? 

For more than two decades, the vast, resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo has been the site of what has been called the deadliest war since World War II. It is fueled largely by “conflict minerals” — tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, known as the 3TG. These are crucial for the production of electronics and found in abundance in Congo, where armed groups use them to fund violent activities.

This ongoing conflict has claimed the lives of more than 5 million Congolese and displaced millions more. Sexual violence is also used by rebels and the Congolese army to demoralize, intimidate and control communities; as a result, Eastern Congo, where the mines are located, has been described as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Smuggling is also rampant. With the rebels in control of the borders, it’s not exactly difficult to shift minerals to neighbors Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. From there they can be shipped to Asian countries — such as China, India and Indonesia — where many electronics companies base their factories.

International attention on the issue of conflict minerals has been growing, notes Christopher Bayer, a principal investigator at Development International. Bayer, who has extensively researched conflict minerals, points to the signing of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 as a turning point. The act requires companies using 3TG minerals to verify their source. And if they’re from Congo? Their supply chain undergoes a thorough review to determine if the company’s mineral purchases are funding armed groups. A few top tech companies are leading the charge here. Intel, which began its work on conflict minerals back in 2008, introduced the world’s first conflict-free microprocessors in 2014. Their current goal: to have their full supply chain validated as conflict-free in 2016. 

Up from two in 2010, there are currently 236 smelters and refiners globally that are compliant to the Conflict-Free Smelter Program (CFSP) protocol.

The Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI) is also helping. Their independent third-party audit of management systems and sourcing practices helps multinational companies like Intel receive proper guidance when selecting minerals within specific supply chains, explains Leah Butler, program director of CFSI. 

The regulatory framework has been a major step forward. Miners who meet certain standards are now registered with permits — and are being compensated more fairly, as opposed to the $1 to $2 daily wage that they used to be paid in conflict zones. Child labor and the exploitation of women are prohibited, and illegal taxes are banned. Centers have been opened near the mines to thwart militarization. 

So there is hope, but “the industry is nowhere near where it needs to be,” Bayer explains, with thousands of companies not even close to complying with the requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act. “There’s no silver bullet to solve the issue of conflict minerals in Congo,” says Bayer. But the average consumer can help by demanding conflict-free products and buying from companies that can account for the sources of their products. “Mindful consumption and awareness can go a long way,” Bayer adds.

So while we always know what’s in our phones — the photos, contacts, apps — we need to know what’s really in our phones.


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