The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook stores its data in this rural North Carolina town, where the privacy debate is just beginning to catch on

Stephanie Henderson at the Second Chances thrift store in downtown Forest City, N.C. (Jacob Biba/For The Washington Post)

FOREST CITY, N.C. — 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 on Tuesday, repeatedly offering apologies and attempting to explain the social network’s business model. He planned to continue testifying Wednesday.

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 in the United States, digital attics where the company stores the information at the center of the current controversy. 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.

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.

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 today, 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 an 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 of 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 staffers.

“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 that she read vampire romance novels. Once, library staffers 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.”

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 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 they 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.