Using data adds to your carbon footprint. So how can we keep it under control? 

According to one estimate, each email you send can add anything from 4–50 grams to your carbon footprint. Streaming a movie adds another 300g. If you’re now busy Googling this to see if that’s true, each search could be between 0.2g and 1g more on your footprint.

Data transfer takes resources. And so does data storage. Every gigabyte you store in the cloud requires between 3 and 7 kilowatt hours of energy. It’s better to keep it on your hard drive. That is 0.000005 kWh per gigabyte. But is still adds up.

So what to do about all that data—the data we transfer or store ourselves and the data relating to us collected and stored by websites and other third parties?

For the event ‘Data deletion 101’ during Victoria University of Wellington’s Toitū te Ao–Sustainability Week, the University’s Professor Richard Arnold and Walter Langelaar took the audience down the rabbit hole of personal data and wresting control of it to reduce its environmental impact and protect privacy.

Arnold, Director of the Data Science Programme in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, warned that when items are deleted on our computers they aren’t actually deleted.

“Even when you say ‘permanently delete this file’, the blocks on the disk are not overwritten until they are needed,” he said. “The space is simply marked as available. And that means, of course, forensic investigators can find files even after you have deleted them out of the recycle bin.”

To be really sure files are deleted, you need to electronically scribble over the unused part of a disk.

But even then, said Arnold, “so many people don’t think about how, when you have a computer, it may be regularly backed up. The file copy you have on your system that’s live—you can permanently delete it, but it may exist in a storage safe in multiple backup copies that have been made at regular intervals to ensure your system is retrievable. Good luck with going through all those old tapes and destroying every copy of the data set”.

Removing data from the web isn’t so easy either. 

A company that owns a website can obviously delete the data and all its own back-ups. But it doesn’t end there. Google is constantly scanning and copying webpages – and it is this cached data, not the live web, that is searched when a user asks a query. So information deleted from a live webpage will still exist in the cached copy. Fully removing data from the web – which is sometimes required by law – means making sure all the search engines remove it from their copies.

Storing our personal data in the cloud – photos, videos, documents – all costs resources. But as energy hungry as our personal cloud storage is, “really it’s nothing compared with our appetite for data transfer”, said Arnold.

“It’s streaming, it’s YouTube, pornographic videos, social media. That high-density image content is what is driving the huge and growing amount of carbon that’s being pumped out by the ICT industry.”

ICT constitutes 4–5 percent of global emissions, said Arnold. “It is going up and that’s our fault because of us moving data around. The data volumes are staggering. For example, YouTube uploads 18,000 seconds of content per second – that’s three hundred hours of content per minute. And on its own YouTube accounts for a fifth of all internet traffic.”

Cryptocurrency mining is a new energy-hungry industry that relies on computers solving complex numerical problems to find new digital ‘coins’. Each time a new coin is found, it is added to the international ledger and can be sold onwards. The largest cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, uses an estimated 70 terawatt hours of electricity a year worldwide – around half the electricity consumption for all of New Zealand.

Arnold gave several tips for people to reduce their personal digital carbon footprint:

– The mobile network uses more energy than wi-fi so even if you have cheap data on your mobile phone try to use wi-fi where you can.

– Sign up if you can for fibre broadband, as pushing data along a fibre network uses less energy than copper lines.

– Limit what you store in the cloud (“you don’t need all those copies of the same photo taken seconds apart”).

– Send links rather than attachments in emails.

– Limit your streaming – and using SD rather than HD halves the amount of data.

– Use a smaller or more efficient TV.

Trying to control the collection and storage of your data by websites and other third parties takes you even further down the rabbit hole and into the realm of ‘dark patterns’ designed to control the direction you take and keep you captive, said Langelaar.

Such patterns might be the torturous trail you are led on if you want to delete your Amazon account or are presented with a banner ad with what looks like a speck of dust on it so you go to brush it away and accidentally click the link.

Langelaar, Director of the Media Design Programme in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design, spoke of the many ways in which websites and others can track and store people’s data, from the GPS information in the metadata of photographs you upload to how Facebook can see what you write in a comment even if you delete it and write something else instead before pressing enter.

If they choose to do so, websites can adopt interface design that helps reduce unnecessary data, he said.

For instance, Microsoft Outlook features new functionality so that “when you are in an email thread and are emailing or looping in another person it keeps asking whether you want to include the most recent attachment. If including the attachment were switched on by default every time, you would be increasing the load of the network unnecessarily.

“These types of design flows or perspectives in general have massive impacts on our systems and how much power they consume.”

Highlighting another twist in the rabbit hole, Langelaar said there is “something paradoxical and a certain irony” in the fact that becoming active about settings, deleting data you don’t need and digging into online accounts in order to ensure digital hygiene would in the short term create more traffic and a greater load on the network.

“Even with a massive public campaign,” said Langelaar, “we would have to say, ‘This is going to make things a lot better but arguably that gets worse before it gets better’.”

This is combined with the fact that, although you might successfully navigate deliberately obscured settings and functionality, there is another dark pattern design paradigm, classified as ‘Privacy Zuckering’, whereby the options presented to end users for ‘deleting’ an account or data usually entail nothing more than a simple ‘un-publish’ action – removing the visibility of that data on the public-facing web but still storing it on the originating servers.

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