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Live From The Blue Ridge Mountains, Where Facebook Stores Its Data

Data in bytes stored on tens of thousands of computer servers in Forest City.
Data in bytes stored on tens of thousands of computer servers in Forest City.
Todd C. Frankel

FOREST CITY It was slow at the thrift shop, and manager Stephanie Henderson, 38, was looking at her laptop, trying to discover all that Facebook had collected on her: the posts, the memes, the photos, the messages to her family.

She had been meaning to do this for weeks, ever since outrage over Facebook's handling of user privacy first burst into her timeline. Now, she clicked a button. Her request for her Facebook data was sent. As she waited, Henderson tried to imagine what a decade's worth of personal details might look like.

"I'm afraid to see what Facebook has on me," she said. "This is just so embarrassing."

Facebook has been on the defensive about user privacy since last month's revelation that political-data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested the profiles of 87 million Facebook users. The social media giant pledged reforms while also divulging that "malicious actors' could have collected the personal data of most of its 2 billion users worldwide. Facing intense criticism, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress this week, repeatedly offering apologies and attempting to explain the social network's business model.

The privacy debate raging in policy and corporate circles can feel distant in rural western North Carolina, but Forest City plays an unusual role: It is home to a massive Facebook data center, one of just four such digital attics in the United States. The Facebook user data obtained by Cambridge Analytica and others has probably spread far out of reach, experts say, to other databases and the dark Web. But it is also here - in bytes stored on tens of thousands of computer servers tucked inside three well-guarded and ever-expanding buildings - that the amorphous discussion about privacy is made concrete.

A lot of my stuff is probably sitting in that building.

And residents like Henderson are just starting to dig in - both creeped out by what they find and resigned to an online world where the loss of privacy is taken for granted.

"It surprises me that they have all this stuff," Henderson said, scrolling through her personal Facebook archive.

Henderson's data is probably stored just on the other side of town, at the Facebook complex next to U.S. Route 74. It's in the middle of a construction boom, part of a rapid expansion that includes plans to beef up existing Facebook data centers and build five new ones across the country. The gray warehouses are ringed by security cameras and thick steel fences. The data center has its own electrical substation next door. Beyond that are a few houses and rolling pastures for cows and horses.

Aerial view of the Facebook property in Forest City — Photo: Forest City Data Center Facebook Page

Facebook choose Forest City in 2010 because the town sits near the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains in an isothermal belt that provides unusually consistent weather. The Facebook property is worth about $650 million, according to municipal records, accounting for nearly half of the entire town's value. But only about 250 people work there, in a town with a population of 7,400. Forest City has more computer servers than people.

Kenneth Odom often finds himself curious about the data center, which he passes on his way to work each day.

"A lot of my stuff is probably sitting in that building," said Odom, an information technology specialist with the county library.

He's cautious online - more of a Facebook "lurker" than active "poster." But he and the rest of the library staff have long wanted to teach the public how to protect themselves online. So a couple months ago they hosted a Facebook privacy class. They hoped for a big draw.

"Maybe one person showed up," Odom said.

But the topic, especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, has sparked debate - at least among library staff.

"I don't think you can put that ketchup back in the bottle."

"I don't feel like a trust has been broken," said Tamara Edwards, youth services librarian.

April Young, director of county libraries, asked: "But don't you think that's because you know how all this works?"

"It seems no different than the information they collect when you swipe your loyalty card at the grocery store," Edwards said.

Still, Edwards admitted to being "creeped out" by the feeling of being watched online. After she researches teen fiction on her work computer, her Kindle at home sometimes recommends she reads vampire romance novels. Once, library staff were talking about something in the office, and Edwards later saw ads for it on Facebook, as though the computer were eavesdropping.

"That was really creepy," said library assistant Amanda McClay.

"That's because it's tracking you," Young said.

"Well," Edwards said, "I don't think you can put that ketchup back in the bottle."

Jerred Roberts, who owns Puzzle Creek Outdoor, finds what Facebook is doing with data both "scary" and "interesting." He uses Facebook as a small-business owner to place ads, and he marvels at its ability to target people who, for example, ride bicycles and live in the county. Otherwise he uses it to keep up with far-flung friends and family.

"It does get a little weird, though, when my data is being shared with various groups in any way they want to use it," Roberts said, "and that can be in ways that doesn't line up with my political and religious beliefs."

It started to feel overwhelming.

A customer overheard Roberts and, after inquiring about a product to clean his bicycle drivetrain, said Facebook's recent privacy problems led him to finally delete his account.

"That's what pushed me over the edge," Scott Griffith said.

It wasn't easy. He had to research the process, and it took two weeks to complete. He wasn't even sure it was finalized. He asked Roberts to check. Roberts tried searching for him on Facebook on the store's computer.

"Nope, I don't see you," Roberts said.

"Good," Griffiths said.

While deleting Facebook is rare, several residents spoke of pulling back from sharing intimate details on their social media pages because of the recent privacy trouble. This is a part of a larger worry for Facebook, which recently noted that at the end of 2017 it suffered "a slight decline" in the number of daily active users in the United States and Canada after years of growth.

At the Second Chances thrift shop, which benefits Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, Henderson was clicking through file after file in her Facebook data archive, teasing out bits of what she had assumed was information lost to history. There was an old selfie shot - "Oh, I look so much younger," she said - and a local news piece on ATM skimmers that she didn't remember sharing. GIFs she'd sent to friends. Apps she'd downloaded onto her phone. A list of everyone who had "poked" her on Facebook and how many times.

"It doesn't really bother me if this stays on Facebook," she said, "but if they share this with other people, that's scary."

Then she found lists of books she'd read. It looked as though it came from her Goodreads app. But she didn't know for sure. It was an unsettling jumble of information, shards that perhaps could be assembled into some kind of useful profile for someone, but not her. This didn't feel as though it was about her.

It started to feel overwhelming. File after file after file.

There was just one thing left to do. It was a temporary fix, only for the night.

She logged out of Facebook.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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