The Dark Side Of Dark Data, And How You Can Help

Imagine if everything you digitally created actually existed in your house. Social media posts from three years ago would spill out of your hall closet. Old blurry photos from vacations past would get shoved under your bed, overflowing onto your floor. Outdated spreadsheets and work reports would take over your coffee table.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Imagine if everything you digitally created actually existed in your house. Social media posts from three years ago would spill out of your hall closet. Old blurry photos from vacations past would get shoved under your bed, overflowing onto your floor. Outdated spreadsheets and work reports would take over your coffee table.

But because we don’t have to actually find room to store our old social media posts or files, it’s easy to forget that they exist. But they do exist — and they’re hurting the planet. All that content that’s created, and never used again, is called dark data. Sound sinister? It’s because it is: The problem with dark data is that it has to go somewhere, usually on a server at a data center. And these centers use a ton of energy. In fact, they could soon make up 8% of the world’s energy use. See, not only do those servers need power to operate, but they require massive cooling systems to keep those servers from overheating. (Some data centers take up 200 acres of space — so think about what it would take to keep something that huge cool.) And while some companies, like our sponsor Samsung, have started manufacturing low-power memory chips to help reduce heat and carbon emission in data centers, many data farms still rely on fossil fuels.

In 2020, dark data was responsible for the release of approximately 6.4 million tons of CO2. (That’s the pollution equivalent of driving a car around Earth 575,000 times.) And the pandemic has made things worse: According to a study by Yale’s Kaveh Mandani, the digital boom that accompanied the pandemic, coupled with social distancing mandates and remote work, could be responsible for an estimated additional 34.3 million tons of CO2 getting pumped into the air this year alone.

According to some estimates, dark data comprises more than half of all stored data. A forgotten photo here, an old work file there… it all adds up. But if you’re feeling like a digital hoarder, don’t fret. You can make an impact without deleting your digital life altogether. “There are baby steps that can be taken,” Dr. Mandani told NowThis, “and all those baby steps have an impact.” Read on for five of the biggest dark data culprits, and how you can do a digital deep clean.

Social Media

If you’re active on any social media platform, you might want to take a look at deleting some of your older, inactive posts. After all, your post complaining about the weather four years ago is still out there, using up energy. You don’t have to sit and scroll through the ghosts of social media past, though; TweetDelete allows you to mass-delete any Tweet older than a year, while Facebook offers the ability to delete old posts from within the platform. Similar apps are available for other social networks, so you can cut a big chunk out of your dark data with just a few clicks. And let’s face it: Cleaning up your social media is never a bad idea.

Internet of Things

You can program your coffee maker with a few taps on your phone. You can adjust your thermostat while you’re still in bed. You can find out the weather forecast just by shouting to a smart speaker in your home. The Internet of Things, the name for interconnected devices, has made our lives a lot easier — and a lot more ecologically damaging.

These smart devices need energy to communicate, send data, and store data. They’ve gotten so popular that the International Data Corporation estimates that all these devices will raise global data rates from 33 zettabytes this year to 175 zettabytes by 2025. And zettabytes are big. To absorb the pollution created by that much data storage, you would need 7.5 million acres of forest. (That’s almost three times the size of the Amazon rainforest!) And while you can’t exactly adjust how your smart vacuum communicates with your phone, you’d be surprised what your connected devices are saving. Check your apps and make sure your vacuum isn’t keeping a log of every time it gets stuck in a corner —and if it is, delete it.

There is an upside, however: With just a few clicks, you can help the environment—
and your wallet). “By changing your refrigerator temperature by one degree, you can reduce your consumption bill a lot,” Dr. Mandani told NowThis. “There's an opportunity for you to feel good, save money, and help the planet.

Cloud-Based Photo Storage

Maybe you’re taking rapid-fire photos of a baseball game, trying to snag a great shot. Or perhaps you’re taking a bunch of selfies, figuring you’ll post the best one. We’ve all taken multiple pics at once, hoping that at least one of them will be worth sharing or keeping. But what happens to all the rejected photos when you’re done? If you’re like most people, you let them sit, untouched, in the cloud. If you’re hesitant to delete those old photos — or just have too many to sort through — consider offloading them to an external hard drive. After all, storing your data on the cloud uses a billion times more energy than storing it on your computer. And that’s not hyperbole: Saving something to the cloud uses an estimated 7 kilowatts per gigabyte, but saving something to your computer uses a measly 0.000005 kilowatts.

Old Text Files and Spreadsheets

If you save a new file every time you make a change to a text document, chances are you’ve got a lot of unused — and energy-hogging — content out there. And while it can be intimidating to delete old files, especially if they’re old work or school files that you spent a lot of time on, you can offload them to a hard drive and keep only the most current versions.

Surveillance Video

Doorbell cameras deter “porch pirate” thieves who are quick to swipe an unattended package, and surveillance cameras are the best way to keep an eye on your home when you’re not there. But they also store a lot of data in the cloud — up to 140 GB a month, the equivalent of driving a car 1,745 miles. Our smart doorbells can save short video clips of every captured motion, meaning you’ve likely got countless videos of squirrels triggering your camera, or of you getting the mail. Check your app settings, as you may be able to schedule files to delete after a month or so. And by deleting those old, unused files — the digital version of stuff shoved under your bed — you’ll not only clean up your digital data trail, but you’ll help clean up the planet as well. As Dr. Mandani said, “Without hurting your quality of life, you can help the quality of the environment.”

We'd like to thank Samsung Memory for sponsoring this article. Samsung Memory is creating low-power memory chips and SSDs that help to lower data centers' electricity consumption and heat so the planet doesn't have to combat climate change on its own. By switching to low-power SSDs and DDR5 in data centers across the world, we can save enough energy to power New York City for 4 months. Click here to learn more and join Samsung Memory's #UnsaveToSave challenge to delete unnecessary data in our daily life.