September 18, 2020

Free Storage

Dan Gillmor’s Sunday column points out that hard-disk data storage now costs less than one dollar per gigabyte. Thanks to Moore’s law, the cost of storage is asymptotically approaching zero. It’s interesting to stop and think about what happens as storage becomes essentially free.

Traditionally, storing data has been expensive, so we spent time sorting through our stored data to see what we could discard. We only kept something if we really needed it.

If storage is nearly free, though, the traditional cost equation inverts – it becomes much cheaper to keep information than to worry about whether to delete it. Why go to the trouble and expense to sort through your old stuff, when instead you can just keep it forever?

If storage is free, then the only reason to delete a record is because it might embarrass you, or because it might put you in a bad legal position somehow. In such a world, the very fact that you deleted something would arouse suspicion.

The same logic applies to information that you’re not recording now. If it’s free to store information, then you might as well record it, just in case it turns out to be useful. Even if you’re not sure how it might be useful, the cheap and easy course will be to record everything. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see why it might occasionally be useful to store, say, photographs of everybody you meet, or a continuous video recording of the street outside your house.

All of this has serious implications for privacy. People will avoid excessive recording of their own activities, but the temptation to record others, just in case the recording might be useful, will be strong. If cost is no longer a barrier to surveillance by our neighbors, some new barrier has to arise. What will it be?