The US’s Digital Footprint: How Dark Data and Websites Generate Wasteful Carbon Emissions
What happens to stored, unused data? This data could be near-identical images, outdated business spreadsheets, unused consumer data, old emails and email accounts, archived web content, and other information that has been collected but isn’t being implemented or analyzed in any way. This is called dark data.
Data is stored, organized, and processed in data centers, which require a staggering amount of energy to keep warehouses running. Though users expect readily available resources, most data in these centers are dark and most sites remain unused. The internet allows these resources to be shared, and it alone is expected to use up 20% of global electricity and emit up to 5.5% of the world’s carbon by 2025.
Since the United States has the most data centers of any country, dark data and data centers may prevent it from reaching emissions goals set by the Paris Agreement Commitment, which the Biden Administration has signed back onto since the Trump Administration's withdrawal.
US Data Centers and Emission Standards
As a part of the Build Back Better framework, the Biden administration plans on achieving an economy-wide 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gasses from the levels seen in 2005. By rejoining the Paris Agreement, they also plan on nationally reaching net zero emissions no later than 2050. Since dark data contributes to America’s greenhouse emissions, the wasteful use of these data centers must be addressed.
Though viewed as an alternative to paper-based products, computers and the internet still require massive amounts of power in order to store more and more of the data that is being generated by users daily. Data centers are warehouses filled with servers that each span several square feet and require industrial cooling systems to prevent overheating. By constantly powering these warehouses, both the servers and the cooling systems keep data and various webpages “alive”. However, this energy is often wasted since users are not always on a given site, nor is most centers’ data structured, analyzed, or implemented. This creates inefficiencies in energy use and unnecessary emissions, depleting other sectors from efficient uses of this energy.
Many users, businesses, and developers are not abundantly aware of their digital carbon footprint; either that, or they choose to disregard it. Falling storage costs have fueled uncontrolled data growth, causing businesses to generate greater emissions. For instance, Amazon has violated the local air quality standards in Northern Virginia from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and cases like these are common across the United States. There needs to be more research done on creating long-term incentives for companies to lower their emission rates while allowing them to continue keeping up with consumer demand.
A London-based agency has created a website that helps consumers become more aware of their carbon footprint by calculating the number of carbon emissions created by a site while also exposing companies to how they keep their sites running. In addition, web spaces like these provide inspiration and information about how to use renewable energy to cleanly maintain websites for its users.
What is Dark Data?
Dark data is a term that encapsulates unutilized business data, such as raw survey data, recorded customer calls, old emails and their attachments, and any other unused, unknown or untapped data across an organization. There is a monetary incentive to take dark data and transform it into structured data for business purposes, such as the practice of data mining. The federal government is also a major collector of dark data since their ability to gather data often outpaces their ability to analyze it.
At Loughborough University, two professors are finding ways to decarbonize dark data. They found that dark data generated from employees across various divisions occurred because they weren’t sharing the knowledge they acquired, which resulted in large volumes of data being stored, forgotten, and later duplicated. They propose that by reusing knowledge and distributing it across the organization, various divisions can extract meaning and usage without the accumulation of dark data. This helps businesses and organizations reach net-zero emission goals.
Another aspect to consider is that businesses, consumers, and the government are more prone to privacy risks when dark data is not stored securely. By safely clearing unstructured and sensitive data, firms boost security whilst also reducing their carbon footprint.
Dark data isn’t just a security risk, a missed business opportunity, or a waste of productivity, but is also a hindrance to the environment and energy goals that much of the world, including the United States, has set itself towards. If the American government and its corporations intend to reach net zero emissions by 2050, data center storage costs, energy consumption, and digital carbon emissions must be addressed. The government and corporations should set standards to define, address, and limit the growth of dark data. This can be done by incentivizing businesses and federal agencies to analyze and make use of their dark data or to securely dispose of it in ways that don't threaten national security or business intelligence. Users should also do their part in organizing their personal data whilst educating themselves and raising awareness in others about how their data is being stored and how their websites are being powered. Given the immense benefits of clearing our dark data to make way for future data and sustainability goals, there should be no hesitancy from our leaders in government and the private sector to prioritize this overlooked issue.
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