One of the more recently developed data centers of one of the FANG corporations (Facebook, Apple / Amazon, Netflix (One of these is not like the others), Google) stretches out for 1.4 million square feet. That’s more interior square footage the most of us can be expected to clearly imagine. There is little chance that many of us have ever been in such an expansive interior area. For some perspective 1.4 million square feet is equivalent to 24-plus football fields, including end zones, or 560,2500 square foot homes. An area comparable to the floorplan of 560 decently sized homes filled with servers, disk drives, networking equipment, a bazillion (with a ‘b’) miles of cable, and the mechanicals necessary for power distribution, and cooling. Every piece of equipment humming, in magical technical synchronicity, throughout the day and night collecting, processing, and transitioning data into useful information. Information to be used as deemed appropriate by those with the power to deem what is to be deemed appropriate.
There are zettabytes of data (1 zettabyte = much more than many) rapidly flowing as a stream through multiple mediums that include air, copper, and fiber. The river of bits and bytes flows when humans sleep. Electrons, energy themselves, scoff at any need for rest. The mechanics of bit and byte collection is a marvel of efficiency as is the transformation of electrons into useful information. If we very conservatively estimate the number of zettabytes or data to be three, we would have almost four billion bytes of data for each and every person on earth, assuming a world population as hovering somewhere about 7.5 billion. As one more example, a short to medium novel requires, give or take, 1MB of text and extrapolating that with the data above, each person has the equivalent of 4,000 short to medium novels filled with data. Somewhere, someone is either writing or reading a data book on you right this very minute. Your permission is currently not asked for or, for that matter, required.
All of the transformation that occurs between the collection of relatively unintelligible bits and bytes and that of a corporate compilation of meaningful information is initially introduced by cubicle armies of those proficient in the art of programming. These programs are then introduced into the intricate web of other inter-connected programs where they execute according to their intended function. All of those functions are specifically within the purview of the owning corporations and, in many, if not most, instances, are designed to generate as much revenue as the speed of electrons allows.
Of course, this is where privacy issues may present themselves. The corporations need to gather information to feed the insatiable appetite of the server cluster that exists within the walls of the data center. There are very few hurdles that disrupt this process. In more instances than not, we willingly, albeit somewhat unknowingly, grant full access via a quick click with one of those irritating click-wrap gateways encountered just prior to acquisition of the site access that we need so badly. The government, always somewhat suspect when blindly trusted to do the right thing, is currently overwhelmed with cyber-security battles with Russia, China, and North Korea to name but a few.
As we and our government struggle how to best begin the approach to privacy protection; the machinery continues to hum in an uninterrupted fashion while the data collection and processing continues unabated. The corporations pay billions of dollars in government imposed fines with an air of casual arrogance, accompanied by clearly half-hearted statements of apology. The creation of a decent scoop of corporate revenue via the web requires application of manipulative psychological, and sometimes subliminal, nudges of encouragement to the public to go ahead and click that link.
We have long ago crossed the threshold into the age of the machine and now find ourselves directed by the manipulations of the corporations behind the purse strings that power the internet. The servers, once properly programmed, are serviced themselves by an IT staff that caters to every whim of the processing machinery. True actualization of artificial intelligence looms on a very near horizon.
We are trapped in a web we continually help weave.
I personally have no good solutions that might help enable some element of appropriate privacy protection. Most everyone is aware of the precautions we can and should take when linking about on the web. I doubt if our best practice linking impedes the corporate data gathering and sharing. I trust the government and the corporate leadership are busy working on our collective behalf. (The previous sentence should not require a wink.)
Fred Gustafson was a member of the Apple Global Data Center management team for ten years and worked within Apple’s IT department from 1981 until 2010 in a variety of Data Center related positions.