“Data is the most valuable commodity on earth,” says Karim Amer, one half of the filmmaking duo behind Netflix‘s The Great Hack.
If you’re unconvinced that’s the case, then this documentary might just change your mind. The film explores the Cambridge Analytica scandal from 2018 and how the company used data mined from millions of Facebook accounts around the world to place targeted ads in timelines in order to influence a series of political elections.
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It puts forward a very convincing argument that we should all be doing more to secure our data online, and to champion companies and politicians who, as Amer and his filmmaking and real-life partner Jehane Noujaim put it, practise “good data hygiene”.
“This is something you’re participating in, almost all of your waking life in the connected world,” Amer says. “When you watch something, when you scroll, go on an Uber ride or do anything that’s related to that, you’re giving up data for services. And I think the more we have awareness about that, the more we can balance the see-saw because right now it’s quite skewed. We just give up our data and have no idea what happens to it or how it affects us. We need to demand more.”
Read on for answers to your burning questions about the documentary.
When is The Great Hack released on Netflix?
The documentary will be available worldwide from Wednesday 24th July.
Is there a trailer for The Great Hack?
Yes. It sees one of the film’s protagonists, David Carroll, explain to his students that when we think our phones are listening to us and using the content of our conversations to place ads in our timelines, it is really just proof that an algorithm – which has collected thousands of data points on us all – understands us better than we ever knew…
What is The Great Hack about?
The film is a deep dive into the Cambridge Analytica Scandal of 2018, following three major players – a whistleblower, a Guardian journalist and a university professor who took the company to court – as the story unfolds around them.
What began as a digest on the Sony Pictures hack of 2014, Amer and Noujaim tell RadioTimes,com, soon opened up into a much bigger story, in which political organisations – including, notably, the Trump 2016 presidential campaign – were mining data from Facebook and elsewhere to create targeted propaganda in order to sway voters.
“This has been a five-year labour of love,” Noujaim says. “It did start with the Sony hack and then we realised that the more fascinating conversation was about the hacking of our minds, and how we were being micro-targeted.”
“This is not a film that is Democrat or Republican or leave or remain, it’s about much bigger issues like our free will, and whether [certain social media sites are implementing] an amoral algorithm, that knows more about us than we know about ourselves and is influencing our behaviour.”
Who are the contributors featured in The Great Hack?
The film is told from the perspective of three people:
Brittany Kaiser, a former Business Development Director at Cambridge Analytica-turned-whistleblower, who gave evidence to parliament in April 2018 claiming that the company had carried out work for Leave.EU.
Kaiser left Cambridge Analytica in March 2018 before giving an interview to the Guardian about the practices she encountered at the controversial firm.
In 2018, Kaiser was subpoenaed by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller and asked to provide evidence for the investigation into the potential collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia. This news was first broken when The Great Hack premiered at Sundance Film Festival in February 2019. Kaiser fully complied, however, Cambridge Analytica did not feature in Mueller’s report when it was published earlier this year.
Carole Cadwalladr is a journalist for The Observer who brought the scandal to light with her interview with Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie.
In April 2019, Cadwalladr went viral after her TED Talk – which was delivered to a crowd in Vancouver that included Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Larry Page – surfaced online. In it, she took Silicon Valley to task for their part in the misuse of data in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.
Cadwalladr regularly covers developments in the ongoing fight for data rights in The Guardian and The Observer.
David Carroll – an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York who sued Cambridge Analytica for refusing to disclose the data they have on him.
As shown in the film, Carroll was ultimately unable to get hold of the information Cambridge Analytica had obtained. In May 2018, the British Information Commissioner’s Office ordered parent company SCL to provide Carroll with the data – but SCL had filed for bankruptcy days earlier.
The company has since been fined £15,000 for refusing to comply with the order, but Carroll has seen just a tiny portion of the money and is still yet to receive any of the information requested. Though he was able to prove that the company had unfairly processed the data, he was thwarted by their decision to liquidate.
He continues to fight for data rights on Twitter and beyond…
Key point by @Karim_Amer33 — it’s too easy to blame Cambridge Analytica. We let our democracies get industrialized by big data profiteers. And nothing has really changed for election 2020 in the US. We still have no data rights and voter surveillance is the default setting. pic.twitter.com/qLj8wcrs2y
— David Carroll ???? (@profcarroll) July 20, 2019
What has happened since The Great Hack was filmed?
In July 2019, Facebook was fined a record $5bn (£4bn) by the Federal Trade Commission for data privacy violations in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Despite this, they were on course to hit their second most profitable quarter ever in Q2 of 2019, with share prices rising by over 50% since the beginning of the year. Its plans to launch a global currency are in the works, too.
All the while, Facebook is sitting on the real story – exactly what data was mined by Cambridge Analytica and just how it was used.
Cadwalladr wrote in the Guardian recently: ”More than a year on, that most basic question – who at Facebook knew what, when? – has simply not been answered.”
Cambridge Analytica is no more, but Data Propria, a company established in 2018 which is managed by former CA’s former Head of Product, Matt Oczkowski, and features several former CA staffers, is reportedly working on the Trump 2020 campaign. It is believed to continue the behavioural targeting of its predecessor…
Kaiser has signed a “high six figures” deal with HarperCollins to release a memoir on her time in Cambridge Analytica.
“I think she finds redemption by facing up to what she did, what she was a part of,” The Great Fix filmmaker Amer says. “The structure of her story is very Faustian, she kind of makes a deal with “the devil”, the charismatic Alexander Nix who gives her an opportunity to be on a joyride in the halls of power. That’s a seductive magnetic pull. I think those who get pulled to power also get bent by its magnetic force and it shapes you, and I think Brittany’s journey is one where the power and the journey did shape her, and she loses a lot of essence of who she is but then reclaims herself.”
Cadwalladr, however, says its “a shame” that a certain story, which claimed that Kaiser had helped to bring Israeli operatives into a political campaign in Nigeria, didn’t make it into the film, and added that Kaiser has “been reluctant to acknowledge her own complicated role”.
Brittany Kaiser, one of the 2 central characters in the film, forgets to mention her involvement with Israeli agents who hacked the Nigerian president. So I lend a hand… pic.twitter.com/CXIJAsPHXe
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) July 21, 2019
In July 2019, Arron Banks, co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign filed a libel suit against Cadwalladr. He alleges that the journalist falsely called him a “liar” during her TED Talk.
A few days later, Cadwalladr launched a counter suit against Banks for harassment.
“This is such an abuse of the law by Arron Banks,” Cadwalladr told The Daily Beast. “He’s not suing TED. He’s not suing The Observer or The Guardian. He’s a bully who’s targeting me as an individual to harass and intimidate me and prevent me from doing journalism, a course of behaviour that has been going on for more than two years.”
What should happen next in the battle for control of our data?
The filmmakers say that we should be looking to take control of our data, and to push for legislation that gives us greater protection in that area.
“We’re living in the age of a surveillance economy as a surveillance capitalism,” Noujaim says, “so do we have the right to know what they know about us? Do we have a right to get our data back? Do we have a right to own it? Do we have a right to have consent to say, ‘you know what, I’m aware you’re taking my data in this area and it’s great because I think it’ll advance medical research, but in this area about my political views I’d rather you not, and in this area, I’m medium in terms of how much you take’? Can we have a gauge or remote to customise what data we want to give up under what terms?”
Amer thinks a future in which we all own our own data is a realistic proposition.
“I think at the end of the day what we’ve realised is that data is the most valuable commodity on Earth,” Amer says. “We are the commodity. We should be selling some of the rules on how we want to be mined, before we lose our minds, which is basically what is happening. To not do so leaves us in a complicated space.”
He continues: “regardless of your political views the fundamental basis of a democratic society is having some space of common shared values. Values can change, they can oscillate, but you have some space where those values are represented. With everybody living in their own reality [on social media], at hyper speed, what is the common ground? And if platforms are incentivising polarisation, is that something that we should be okay with?”