A low-level paranoia lives in many of us. Whether you’re the sort of person to stick Blu Tack over your webcam, who refuses to search the internet without incognito mode enabled or has deleted social media altogether, there’s a mistrust there. It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re being watched and listened to whenever an ad for flights to Lisbon appears in your timeline just a day after vocally suggesting a trip to your mates. And while there may be some truth in those seemingly intuitive ads, new Netflix documentary The Great Hack makes clear just how deep that shady surveillance can – and does – go.
Homing in on the intimidatingly complex Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, which exposed just how much of our personal information Facebook has (and uses), directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim give us a tour of what really happened while the data analytics company worked on the Ted Cruz campaign, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and, on this side of the pond, Brexit.
There’s a complicated web of involvement that links Cambridge Analytica to Facebook, the Trump campaign and Leave.EU, but the two key players you're going to want to pay attention to in the film sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. We meet David Carroll, associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, who teaches digital media and app development. He says he realised that the "digital traces of ourselves are being mined into a trillion dollar a year industry." What does that mean? It means David picked up on the fact that our digital footprints don’t just evaporate into thin air once we’ve made them. Shadows of our transactions, habits and actions live on after we log out, and companies able to access this information can use it for whatever they want, without us really knowing about it. It could result in more of those annoyingly applicable holiday ads, or the type of personalised propaganda that worked in favour of the likes of team Trump and Brexit – it just depends on who buys the information and what they intend to do with it.
On the other side of the coin we have Brittany Kaiser. She used to be a business director at Cambridge Analytica and, from what we’re reminded in the documentary, can be vaguely linked to WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and the Hillary Clinton email controversy. Prior to Cambridge Analytica, she worked as an intern on the Barack Obama campaign which, save for using social media to drive engagement, is a long way from the Republican Cruz and Trump campaigns she later helped lead to success with CA. We meet her 'somewhere in Thailand' and she gives her interview while in a glorious, resort-looking pool. The vagueness of her location is because she "has information that the Brexit campaigns and the Trump campaign could’ve been conducted illegally, and so for my own safety I don’t need a geolocation of where she is."
You’ll likely be wondering at this point why someone would do a 180 on themselves and opt to speak out about the invasive, controversial work on election campaigns in which they'd played a crucial part. Brittany says a friend asked whether she’d be happy with how her story would go down in history and her answer was no. "I’m not that interested in standing up for powerful white men anymore, who obviously don’t have everybody’s best interests at heart," she explains. Though there are clips of Brittany appearing before MPs in London to give evidence condemning Cambridge Analytica and sharing stomach-churning facts about just how tangibly the company was able to affect the democratic process in countries across the world, there are gaps in her story that the documentary will only leave you wanting answered.
Cambridge Analytica claimed in its own marketing material to have "5,000 data points on every American voter". We hear how David entered into a years-long legal challenge against CA to force them into giving him all the data that they have on him. He was looking for full disclosure on how CA had enough to build personality and behaviour profiles of himself and every other American, what happened to it when it was gathered and whether or not people can opt out of something they don’t even know is happening. It’s here that we have to consider data rights as one of the biggest challenges facing human rights.
One of the scary things is how easily the mass data gathering operation seemed to happen. Retracing the facts that rippled through news reports a couple of years ago, the documentary reminds us of a Facebook app that had special permission to harvest data not just from those who used the app and answered a quiz but from their friends, too. Former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wiley, a whistleblower who helped expose the inner workings of the company, explains that "if you were friends with someone who had used the app, you wouldn’t have any way to know that information from your status updates, likes and in some cases private messages had been gathered too."
We also hear from Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has been investigating the ties between CA and the Brexit campaign full-time for years now. She recounts a meeting with Andy Wigmore who worked on the Leave.EU campaign in 2016. He told her about Nigel Farage being friends with former Trump campaign leader Steve Bannon, who was also an exec at Cambridge Analytica, and how they were mining data from Facebook. "It’s creepy Carole, the amount of information you can get on people! People just give it to you," Carole remembers Andy saying.
Swallowing all of this information from one documentary is difficult but one of the most important takeaways is that none of this exponential data access scandal and its effects on two of the most controversial elections in recent British and American history is inconclusive. It's terrifying to know that through worldwide compliance with under-scrutinised Facebook terms and conditions, we're only just coming to terms with the fact that we're extremely vulnerable to a dark side of social media that we didn't really understand existed beyond the pacifiable cries of 'Fake News!'. "Last year data surpassed oil in value – it’s the most valuable asset on Earth," Brittany says. Terrifyingly, it doesn't sound like we're well enough equipped to deal with that reality just yet.
The Great Hack is available on Netflix from 24th July