Prior to this module, the only thing I knew about the development of the smartphone I use, an iPhone 6S, was that it was produced in a giant factory-city owned by a company called Foxconn. I heard from my dad that Steve Jobs and the other Apple bigwigs worked very hard to get the necessary land, materials, and contracts to open this massive center of production, but even then I could not comprehend the amount of injustice that happens on the premises. The hours are so demanding that suicide at the facility is not uncommon and, since the workers also live at the location, their lives become eating, breathing, sleeping, and speaking the manufacture of the technology that has become so intertwined with our, the average American’s, idea of daily life. I love having my stupid little device as much as anyone else around me, but learning that people all around the world live and literally slave away for its production hit me hard, and the experience was quite jarring to put it lightly.
Opening up with Phone Story and an excerpt from Kevin Bales’ Blood and Earth, the mining and distribution of columbite-tantalite quickly piqued my interest, and once my group and I had finished busting open our Philips iPod Dock/Speaker/Alarm, I identified the company that made one of the chips as Holtek Semiconductor, Inc. I made their supply chain my target, and I wanted to see if their company conflict minerals policy has held true since their founding in 1998. The first two hours of digging didn’t come up with a lot of leads.
There were a few threads on Newegg and TigerDirect that discussed what parts and what companies were doing business that most likely used slave labor to get the necessary raw materials, but those were more general computer parts than basic Radioshack tech. Many of the sites I browsed through looked like they hadn’t been touched since the late 90s and, based off how many times my virus and malware detection software popped off, I think it’s safe to say their architecture probably hasn’t had any attention since then. After another couple hours of sifting, the forums began to get more and more modern, and eventually I found a Mega.co.nz link that was a repository of public transaction records for Holtek. Now, if you think computer code is lifeless to go through, try going through a bunch of business legal jargon and alphanumeric codes for who knows what. There wasn’t a key or anything, but I kept my eyes open for key phrases like “shipping,” “Democratic Republic of the Congo,” “Australia,” and “columbite-tantalite/coltan.”
Something about me is that once or twice a month, I’ll have a night where sleeping is just impossible until the wee hours of the morning. Having nothing to do, I decided to get back to deciphering those documents. I had made my way through about forty pages the previous night, and I felt I could knock out at least another twenty or so. Then, a chat box opened up in the lower corner of my window. Many alarms went off in my head, for I’ve heard horror stories on how people will go to parts of the web they shouldn’t only to have a chat box appear with some random posting how they have all of their geographic information and have sent an armored van full of nasty dudes to their house to make them the latest addition to their illegal torture live-streaming website. Very quickly, thankfully, my OCD brain turned off and I realized that since I had made a Mega account to get the most out of the service’s interface, I remembered that users can chat with each other. So the box read, “Hello.”
So I typed back, “Hi there,” and this is how the conversation went, slightly paraphrased for grammar’s sake:
“What’re you doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why’re you looking at these files?”
“I’m a college student working on a digital archaeology project, I wanted to see where Holtek Semiconductor gets their coltan from. I thought these had already been published in the public sector, should I not be looking at them?”
“Oh. No that’s fine, just nobody ever bothers to look for that kind of stuff. You’re access is the first activity we’ve seen on those transactions for five or so years.”
“We? Do you work for Holtek?”
Upon asking that question, I got a link to the homepage of an encrypted chat client by the name of CryptoCat, along with some information that I assumed was to be used to connect to the person I was talking to on Mega. I had used CryptoCat a few times in high school, when I was heavy into an anti-government, anti-surveillance, punk music mindset, so setup was more or less like riding a bike. After successfully connecting, this mysterious man behind the curtain told me that he was an accountant for Holtek in Taiwan named John. At least, that’s what he said I could call him, since he said I probably didn’t have keys on my keyboard capable of writing out his actual name. I asked him if he worked at the HsinChu City location, but he wasn’t comfortable giving out that specific of information. I asked why the secrecy and encrypted communication, and he informed me that some of the programs that monitor Internet usage in nearby China collect information from some servers in Taiwan. His actions up to this point were just routine protocol on identifying if it was another bot program from China, or an anomaly like I turned out to be.
After talking about the political climate in China, and how much censorship affects web usage in all of Asia, I got back on topic to coltan. I wanted to know if all the materials that Holtek used came without slave labor, and that they actually came from Australia like most of the trade reported on Wikipedia. John informed me that, for that product and the year it came out, the coltain most likely came from Australia. Nowadays most companies get their coltan from mines in Africa, but they avoid business with countries like the Congo. However, the product from the Congo will be housed in the same warehouses as coltan from Australia or other parts of the world. In these storage facilities, it’s all just coltan, and with occasionally inaccurate weigh-in machines, Holtek might end up with a half a ton of the material from the Congo. Internal investigation shows that this happens for about lesser than or equal to .01% of their supply, and that’s low enough and out of their hands enough for them to keep their policy and how they’ve stuck to it on their homepage. I thanked John for the time and info he gave me, telling him that finding his document backup was like finding the next big ore vein for my project.
I never thought that my seemingly microscopic investigation would send me down such a deep rabbit hole, but it was a real eye-opening experience. All of my work hammered into my head the idea that there are real people behind every step of getting the tech we here in the first world can’t live without, and some of those steps aren’t pretty or nice or happy. I can’t get rid of all the illegal coltan mines that violate human rights with one blog post, but I can spread awareness to those around me, and I hope that helps plants the seeds of change for a more responsible tomorrow.