"The Great Hack" looks at how big a business and profound a political a threat the use of our personal data has become. Professor David Carroll (pictured) went to court to try and get the data Cambridge Analytica has on him. - Original Credit: Screengrab courtesy of Netflix
"The Great Hack" looks at how big a business and profound a political a threat the use of our personal data has become. Professor David Carroll (pictured) went to court to try and get the data Cambridge Analytica has on him. - Original Credit: Screengrab courtesy of Netflix (screengrab / HANDOUT)

“The Great Hack,” which premieres July 24 on Netflix, is not a great documentary. But it has a powerful and chilling message about the way we have lost control of our personal data and how it is now being used to manipulate us and fuel the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. As the 2020 presidential campaign accelerates with Democratic debates and the official launch of Donald Trump’s re-election effort, this is a must-see film for anyone who uses social media and cares about democracy.

The film focuses on the way the marriage of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm whose founders included former Brietbart CEO Steve Bannon, helped make Trump’s presidency and Brexit possible in the U.S. and UK. But it also shows how personal data freely given to social media platforms has become the secret sauce of propaganda campaigns and election messaging in other countries ranging from Trinidad and Tobago to Italy and Argentina.

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Remember those seemingly harmless personality quizzes you engaged with on Facebook when you should have been working? That’s the stuff on which hundreds of thousands of Facebook ads were bought in the 2016 presidential election here and the Brexit campaign in the UK. And once the data is given, you don’t own it any more. The merchants of digital information do, and they are not inclined to give it back, as one narrative thread of “The Great Hack” shows with the case of David Carroll, an American professor who went to court in the UK in an effort to get access to his voter profile held at Cambridge Analytica in London.

Oh, and by the way, once you "shared’ some of your personal information with a platform like Facebook, all of your “friends” data was accessible as well to those who traffic in a commodity that some in the film characterize as being more valuable than oil in the world economy today.

You thought you were only sharing your feelings about starting a new job or being a new grandpa with friends online, but you might as well have given Bannon a road map to your secret sexual fantasies or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a detailed accounting of the crazy, paranoid fears that wake you up some nights at 3 a.m. shaking like you have pneumonia.

Understand there is someone out there willing to buy that data and use it in a political campaign. And if you think operations like Trump 2020 have any scruples about buying similar data and using it again, think about some of the lovely campaign managers from Trump 2016 like Paul Manafort, now in prison, who preceded Bannon in that role on the victorious Trump effort.

The film opens with Carroll, who teaches digital media at the Parsons School of Design. He is our point of entry to this dense production as we follow him in his effort to reclaim his personal data from Cambridge Analytica.

“All of my interactions: my credit card swipes, web searches, locations, likes — they’re all collected in real time and attached to my identity, giving any buyer direct access to my emotional pulse," he says in voiceover at the start of the film.

“Armed with this knowledge, they compete for my attention feeding me a steady stream of content built for and seen only by me. And this true for each and every one of us: what I like, what I fear, what gets my attention, what my boundaries are, and what it takes to cross them," he adds. “We are the commodity in a trillion-dollar-a-year industry.”

Carroll’s journey soon brings him to Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative reporter for The Guardian, who has reported extensively on Cambridge Analytica and the role it played in the rise of right-wing politicians and referendums.

“The real game changer was Cambridge Analytica," she says. “They worked for the Trump campaign and for Brexit campaign."

Claiming to have 5,000 points of data on every American voter, the consulting firm started using that data as “information warfare" in those efforts, she explains.

Later in the film, a former Cambridge Analytica employee will tell a UK commission that the personal data of social media users was “weaponized” in the firm’s campaigns in a way that had never been done — even in classic propaganda efforts.

Give Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, co -directors of “The Great Hack,” much credit for finding a way to take viewers inside Cambridge Analytica. With all the fingers pointing at the firm and all the talk about how it had gone deeper into the dark side of data-driven politics than had ever been done, the directors had to find a way inside that tent.

And they do that in the person of Brittany Kaiser, who worked as an intern on the digital campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama in 2008. She joined Cambridge Analytica for the 2016 campaign and says she was the one who pitched the firm to Team Trump and wrote the first contract between the UK firm and the Trump’s campaign. She also reportedly met with WikiLeaks on the hack of Hillary Clinton campaign emails and traveled to Russia. She was definitely in the thick of it in 2016.

Kaiser now portrays herself as whistle blower, and indeed she does shine light in some dark corners and nasty practices of the company. It is fascinating to see and hear her in the film as she watches and derisively comments on the testimony before members of Parliament by her former boss, Alexander Nix, one-time CEO of the company, a truly duplicitous character. Screens within screens within screens: a nice metaphor for the complicated layers of this story and the conflicting accounts offered by some of the players.

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But Kaiser herself is a kind of shape-shifting, if not shady, figure herself in the film. And under the heading, “Be careful what you wish for,” I think she ultimately sabotages the production to some extent.

Amer and Noujaim spend so much time with their cameras and microphones on her as she scrambles from one city and country to the next without a sense of direction that they lose any kind of over-riding narrative focus. Viewers are instead left with overlapping narratives. And as powerful and important as the information in those story lines might be, it is hard to know which matter most and what is or isn’t trustworthy and true within them.

Yes, Kaiser helps the directors take us inside Cambridge Analytica with her recollections and answers to questions about her role in the 2016 race, but in the end, what part of what she says can we trust? What do we know to be true in a journalistic sense?

That said, “The Great Hack” is still the most important documentary I’ve seen so far this summer — and there have been plenty of good ones.

One thing the film is perfectly clear about is the way data given to Facebook by its members found its way through a third party into the dirty hands of Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 election. It is believed that that the firm had access to the data of 87 million Facebook users starting in 2014.

And even though the consultancy firm filed for bankruptcy in 2018, no shortage of bad actors are still out there. And you can be sure your data has not evaporated in to the ether. It is still being bought and sold no matter what phony claims Zuckerberg makes about reforms.

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In terms of full disclosure, I should say that I have never trusted Facebook one bit. I came to actually hate it after the revelations of how irresponsibly it behaved as custodian of our information during the election of 2016. Zuckerberg’s cavalier dismissal of any responsibility made my head explode.

As a media critic, I had to be part of Facebook. But I resented every piece of personal data I had to give to be a member — and I shared nothing from my personal life if I could help it.

Last month, someone hacked my account and started posing as me on the platform. Not surprisingly, the folks at Facebook were of no help in dealing with it. The most informed advice I could find among my media colleagues was to delete the account.

And so I did. I cannot tell you how good it felt to leave and be done with that world of dodgy information, pseudo-community and tenuous acquaintances constructing narratives about their lives as phony as year-end holiday cards.

But because of my job, I will, of course, have to return to the fabulous Facebook “family" at some point soon.

And that means it won’t be long before some creepy character working for some crooked political consultancy firm will be scraping my data into what I fear will become the great ash heap of democracy.

That’s one of the things that wakes me up some nights at 3 a.m. shaking like someone with pneumonia.

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