It's not exactly what anyone might expect to find at a garbage dump in Ghana.
Journalism students from the University of British Columbia discovered intact hard drives containing secret international security data and personal information at a digital dumping ground in Ghana, said their teacher, Peter Klein.
Mr. Klein, a producer for the PBS television program Frontline and an Emmy Award winning journalist, said the drives included information about U.S. Homeland Security and Pentagon defence contracts as well as social security numbers, credit card numbers, and family photos.
The dumps are frequented by criminal gangs in the country, he said.
The findings are part of a project by Mr. Klein's graduate students investigating electronic waste, or e-waste. The team also travelled to Guiyu, China, and India, piecing together the afterlife of discarded computers, drives and parts.
To find out if cyber criminals could get information stored on the computers, the students bought several hard drives from vendors near the Ghana dumps to test at home in Vancouver.
One of the drives came from Northrop Grumman, a large U.S. military contractor. It contained "details about sensitive, multimillion-dollar U.S. government contracts" as well as contracts with the defence intelligence agency and NASA, according to a synopsis of the project on the PBS website.
While there's no way to know if the data has been used to commit crimes, Mr. Klein said that criminal gang members have been seen combing the debris.
"We certainly found out from folks at markets near the dumps that these criminals come by and scan the drives for information," he said.
Mr. Klein said the class reported its findings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and that they "were certainly concerned about it."
The team's 20-minute documentary of the investigation, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground , aired on Tuesday night on the network in Canada and the United States.
With a report from the Canadian Press