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Judd Gregg: Why zettabytes matter

Judd Gregg: Why zettabytes matter
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A zettabyte is the way to quantify how much data is out there in our digital world.

A zettabyte also measures storage capacity of data.

A zettabyte is one sextillion bytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

It is a lot. It is difficult to comprehend. It is also important relative to where we are headed as a world, a nation and a culture.

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In 2016, there were approximately 16.1 zettabytes of data coursing around the world. By 2025, this will grow to 163 zettabytes.

 

All this data is being produced by….us.

When you use your mobile device. When you use your car. When you go to Starbucks. When you access Netflix. When you do just about anything that uses the Internet, Wi-Fi or just connects in some way digitally to something, you create data.

This is true for most of the world’s population.

It is estimated that by 2025, 75 percent of the people on this planet will have some sort of device that directly generates data. Almost all the rest will have daily activities that also involve interaction that creates data.

And the data that arises from your activities, a lot of it is all about…you.

Much of this data is not being kept. But a great deal of it is. It is being stored.

After many decades of collection, all known stored data reached a zettabyte in 2016. By 2025, the total stored data will be 2 or maybe 3 zettabytes.

With the advent and acceleration of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the possibilities for how this data can be used are truly limitless.

We are in the Age of Data. It is revolutionary.

This raises concerns that no one can yet fully understand or predict.

This is especially true for a government like ours — a democracy steeped in a check and balance system, and without any great alacrity when it comes to anticipating or reacting to periods of dramatic change.

It is not apparent that our government is equipped to either accurately predict that future or deal with the public policy challenges raised by all this data.

Those who govern us should understand that this is a seminal moment in terms of how people deal with each other, their daily lives and their government.

This data, and the use of it through machine learning, is going to fundamentally change commerce and international relations, as well as affecting how nations prosper and, more importantly, survive.

Congress is attempting to understand these implications.

But from the questions asked by members during recent hearings with leaders of the tech industry, it is fairly obvious that members of Congress have no idea of the depth or type of water they are thinking of stepping into.

The European Union has now put in place a regime called General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It is an attempt to give individuals some control over how their data is collected and used.

Since the effort is just beginning, it is not really known what the consequences of the GDPR will be  — other than that it has cost hundreds millions of dollars and massive amounts of time for enterprises to try to comply with it.

GDPR affects everyone from the behemoths like Google to the local restaurant or laundry. They all collect personal data in the course of doing business.

It may be that GDPR will help protect an individual’s privacy regarding the data they generate. Or, it may signal the beginnings of the ultimate Big Brother exercise that brings into play some form of the Orwellian world predicted in “1984.”

What is obvious is that we are just on the outskirts of having governments, especially democratic governments, deal with the implications of this Age of Data to their citizenry.

Rather than having Congress rush forth with new gigantic bureaucracy as the answer, it might be better to follow the maxim of medicine: “First, do no harm.”

Congress should consider letting the EU experiment with GDPR play out for a while.

See if it actually does make people feel better about how their data is being used. See how it affects national security and law enforcement. See if it works.

It could easily be the case that the GDPR regime adds little. Most people may opt to waive their rights under GDPR, given how keen is their need and desire to be digitally connected. 

If this is the result, then GDPR simply becomes another massive bureaucratic undertaking that delivers little useful benefit other than a feel-good claim for politicians and a lot more expense to consumers.

Congress needs to take care that it does not undermine the advantage in international commerce that we have when it comes to managing data. 

It should let the Europeans pursue their efforts in this field and see where the pieces fall, before we try to put together policy in this complex Age of Data.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.