The Alarming Issues Raised In ‘The Great Hack’ Will Keep You Up At Night
It’s become so common to see Facebook and Instagram ads pop-up after doing a Google search for a pair of shoes, a restaurant or headphones, that there are memes around the lack of privacy we face for being online. It doesn’t bother us. There’s an underlying attitude of “this is the price we pay for the convenience of an interconnected world.” “The Great Hack,” a documentary on the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal, takes a sledgehammer to this passive way of thinking.
The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was recently added to Netflix’s streaming service.
It opens with a scene of Brittany Kaiser at what is implied to be Burning Man, a weeklong festival held in the middle of the Nevada desert and founded on the principles of sustainability, civil responsibility, and inclusion. The voiceover introduces Kaiser as a former Obama intern who went on to become a director at Cambridge Analytica—a company working exclusively with Conservatives and linked to the success of Trump, Brexit, and other far-right political parties.
Kaiser is a complicated figure. Her resume begins with positions associated with idealism and the Democratic Party, who ended up working to undermine democracy. She turned whistleblower—a label former colleagues scoff at—under a cloud of suspicion. Most people asked, “what’s in it for her?” When she’s asked outright about her evolution she says “None of them [referring to Obama and Hillary Clinto] ever wanted to offer to pay me…you have to work for people who pay you.” She references her family’s financial troubles as the trigger for accepting a job with Cambridge Analytica.
Next comes David Carroll, a media professor at Parsons School of Design.
Carroll filed a legal claim against the London-based data company to gain access to the information they collected on him. To date, Cambridge Analytica has refused to comply.
Carole Cadwalladr is another player introduced in the film.
She is a British investigative journalist who began to unravel the relationship between the tech giant and consulting company. When she raised the alarm around the alarming connection between Cambridge Analytica and Brexit, similar fake-news harassment was turned on her. The movie runs a video featuring a scene from Airplane! where a line of slap and beat a woman who has Cadwalladr’s face superimposed. The last person in line is shown with a gun.
The movie explains how a one-click personality test with questions like “I prefer to be left alone,” and “I have a rich inner world,” built a psychological profile of the user, and allowed them to be manipulated for political gains. The test was designed by University of Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan, and its findings were sold to Cambridge Analytica.
They complied to delete the data at the request of Facebook, but the movie captures Kaiser going through old emails and finding data sets weeks after Cambridge Analytica said they had erased them.
How did we get here?
The film repeatedly asks how the dream of a connected world tore us apart and has created a world where people like Carroll are fighting to make data rights, a human right. To better understand what went down in the 2016 election and how digital is affecting our democracy, it’s worth the watch. Knowing what is being collected about us shouldn’t be a secret—especially when other businesses profit off that intel.
In the meantime, here’s a cheat sheet.
Giving Up Access To Your Data Isn’t Entirely Your Fault—Or In Your Control
Kogan offered Cambridge Analytica data from apps that were given special permission to harvest information. The film highlights how simply being Facebook friends with someone, who granted a third-party vendor access to their profile, could have caused your data to leak. These apps pulled from the person granting access, and in the process created an entry point for the data company to harvest from their friend’s network. If you were friends with someone using this app, data could be pulled without your permission or realization. It wasn’t just public information—they also mine from private messages to build data profiles on users.
Cambridge Analytica Bombarded “Persuables” With Content They Couldn’t Ignore
In order to mobilize swing voters, and ground the opposition, Cambridge Analytica took the data they found and focused on a small population who could be persuaded to back their clients. They called this population the “persuadables.” People like Kaiser talk about “pulling levers” to activate their base. These people were pummeled with inflammatory content on Facebook, YouTube, Google, and WhatsApp. The images, videos, and language used positioned Hillary Clinton as an evil crook, said a Cambridge Analytica exec who admitted on-camera in an undercover expose by a British news outlet.
It wasn’t just all right-wing content. People labeled as liberals received the same treatment with Black Lives Matter content and stories focused on police brutality. The deception happened both ways.
Oil is No Longer the Most Lucrative Industry
According to Carroll, data mining has become a trillion-dollar industry. Kaiser says data has surpassed oil as the most valuable commodity and industry. They both make a case for protecting the information out there. Kaiser even argues it should be treated and protected like real estate.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Cadwalladr argues.
It’s Still Unclear What Data Was Collected And Who Was Targeted
At the film’s close, Carroll still hasn’t been given the information Cambridge Analytica collected on him. Speaking at the European Parliament, Carroll testifies that the pool of people targeted, who they were and the extent to which their data was used for is still unknown. What is clear is that the vendor’s business model works and has the ability to impact a mass population.
“In the U.S. only about 70,000 voters in three different states decided the  election,” he says.
Kaiser Admits Data Targeting is a ‘Weapons Grade Communications Tactic’
At the British Parliament, Kaiser offers testimony classifying Cambridge Analytica’s work as an industry regulated by the British government due to the severity of consequences associated with its use.