It is hard to believe that our mundane social media banter could have an impact on the civil war that has been raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for more than a decade. The problem is not the content of these messages; it is the devices used to send them. Smartphones, tablets, PCs and other gadgets often have electronic components made from so-called conflict minerals—gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten—taken from specific mines in the D.R.C. that give a cut of their profits to armed groups.
Chipmaker Intel used the Consumer Electronic Association's International CES trade show in January to spotlight this problem and declare that its microprocessors are now free of conflict minerals. The company says it has taken steps to have its suppliers—in particular, the smelters that extract metals from mined ore—audited by third-party companies and to certify that they are not cooperating with extortion efforts that funnel money to local warlords.
The idea of conflict minerals was relatively obscure four years ago, when the Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nongovernmental organization, brought the issue to Intel's attention. Intel's work has encouraged other companies to examine the sources of their products' raw materials, Enough Project senior policy analyst Sasha Lezhnev said at the International CES.
Tech companies do not use as much of these minerals as other industries, such as jewelry makers. Yet gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin play an important role in our gadgets. Like many device manufacturers, Intel relies on highly conductive gold in circuit cards, connectors and semiconductor packaging. The company uses tantalum in some of its capacitors and in the “sputtering” deposition process used to make its semiconductors. Tungsten also plays a limited role in the semiconductor fabrication process. Tin, meanwhile, is a key component in the silver-tin solder that attaches electronic components to their circuit boards.
Soon all companies will have to scrutinize their supply chains. In August 2012 the Securities and Exchange Commission began requiring firms to annually disclose the sources of the gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum used in their products. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have filed a lawsuit against the sec in response to its new rules, but companies will still have to get their first disclosure reports to the agency by May 31.