You’d think that a proverbial elephant in the room could hide somewhere inside a massive data center. But there it was, standing right in the middle of the grand opening of the Facebook Data Center at Alliance Texas in North Fort Worth last week. During the perfectly pleasant dog-and-pony show, politicians, Facebook leaders, and economic developers congratulated one another and gave slick, well-worded speeches for their prowess in bringing the social media giant to Texas.
“Our mission at Facebook is to connect the world,” said Tom Furlong, Facebook vice president of infrastructure. “And our data centers provide the foundation … to connect billions of people. Today, people connect through photos, videos, [and] messages, and we’re creating even more immersive experiences with our 360 videos and photos, Facebook Live, and various virtual and augmented reality.”
Inside the Fort Worth Data Center, tens of thousands of computer servers are humming and blinking as they frantically process the words, videos, and pictures that users are posting. In theory, most of the data processed at the center will come from Facebook users in the North Texas region, Furlong said.
Once it is fully built-out, the $1 billion ,2.5 million square-foot facility will serve as a “cornerstone” for Facebook’s global infrastructure, Furlong said. The sprawling white fortress sits at the corner of Park Vista Boulevard and Texas 170.
But why is so much money and effort spent to process the information captured by Facebook? It’s far more than a tremendous public service. Data generated by Facebook is said to be a hot commodity for intelligence agencies and data brokers, companies that buy and sell consumer information.
When we asked about Facebook’s alleged relationship with the National Security Agency (NSA), Furlong was tight-lipped, redirecting the focus back to the celebration at hand.
“At most of these events we focus on this,” Furlong said, adding that Facebook’s public relations arm can produce a “bazillion quotes that we have for that kind of stuff. I try to stay out of it.”
Our data, however, is not likely to stay out of it.
In the beginning, Facebook’s plans to set up shop in Fort Worth seemed more like a clandestine operation. It started with a series of covert phone calls and meetings between politicians and high-end developers in 2014. The calls arrived after hours or on the weekend, and the callers asked questions but offered few details in return. They wouldn’t give their last names, nor would they say what business they represented. At city hall in Fort Worth, the operation was known as the “covert site selection team,” Mayor Betsy Price later said.
“They would come in, and they would only tell you their first names,” Price said during the grand opening ceremony. “No last names. It was a guessing game. They would call my cell phone on Saturday or Sunday.
“Finally,” Price continued, “we said it’s got to be either Google or Facebook. We hope it’s Facebook. We were able to keep it under wraps for a relative while. And now, here it is, and it’s reality.”
While Facebook was courting city hall, it also was reaching out to developer H. Ross Perot, Jr., chairman of the real estate development corporation Hillwood Properties and also developer of Alliance, the thriving master-planned community in North Fort Worth which is now home to the Facebook data center. Forbes says Perot has a net worth of $1.6 billion.
Texas movers and shakers clamored to bring Facebook here, partly because of the social media giant’s potential to create a buzz and attract other tech businesses to the area.
“This is one that went all the way to the top,” Perot said.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, and Rep. Charlie Geren (R-River Oaks) were among the list of heavy-hitters involved in wooing Facebook to Texas. Prior agreements with the City of Fort Worth for zoning, entitlements, and infrastructure helped pave the way for Facebook to come here, Perot said.
So far, the data center has generated about 150 jobs, in addition to several hundred construction jobs. Facebook is also involved in community outreach and expects to hire more employees. The exact number of people Facebook will employ is unknown at this point, said KC Timmons, site manager for the Fort Worth Data Center, which, when complete, will feature a total of five buildings stacked with computer servers. In all, Facebook has five data centers located throughout the nation.
North Texas is considered the second largest market in the nation for high tech data centers, the Dallas Morning News reported in March. And that is a trend that is only expected to grow.
“There is a lot more business coming to Fort Worth, and a lot more data-center business coming into Fort Worth,” Perot said. “It’s amazing how the data-center boom is really starting to hit the country. Over 350 acres are dedicated to data centers at Alliance, and we are working hard to get that built up.”
The arrival of more data centers, backed by mega-corporations, might be great news for politicians and developers, but it’s not likely to be exciting for privacy advocates.
In his 2014 book, No Place to Hide, journalist and constitutional attorney Glenn Greenwald writes that the NSA’s PRISM program allows the government to directly access the servers for Facebook, Google, and several other internet companies, whose bosses have all denied the allegations in various news reports.
Look no further than Facebook’s privacy policies to see how user information is gathered. Data is collected about the content you view on Facebook, how many times you view it, and for how long. Information is also collected on when you create or share information, as well as your messages and communications with other people. All of it can find its way into the hands of data brokers and advertisers. There are few regulations for data brokers who can categorize and distribute our information, according to a 2014 report by the Federal Trade Commission, the ominously named Data Brokers: A Call For Transparency and Accountability.
In a report aired on multiple media outlets back in 2013, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden explained how damaging the freewheeling distribution of our data can be: “You don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.”
Facebook has an estimated 1.8 billion users worldwide, so people are either unaware of privacy concerns or they do not care. They’re willing to give up their information in exchange for the services, apps, and other goodies that Facebook provides.