8 takeaways from the Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack’

07/08/2019 | Nicole Allen

Think you’re safe on the internet? Watch The Great Hack on Netflix and think again.

Think you’re safe on the internet? Watch The Great Hack on Netflix and think again.

David Carroll, whose determined search for answers on how his data was exploited plays a vocal role in The Great Hack: Netflix’s latest documentary on taking on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

The documentary does a palatial job of articulating for a mainstream audience the risks that come with society today of unregulated surveillance capitalism, despite the complications involved within the invisible data ‘supply chain’ that nourishes the beast. Most obviously by trying to make these digital social emissions visible to the viewer- as mushrooming pop-ups overlaid on shots of smartphone users going about their everyday business, primarily in the dark of the prevalent trace it sets on you as a user.

Facebook is not likely to be a fan of the ordeal. In its own crisis media around the Cambridge Analytica transgression has sought to reach the opposing effect; making it harder to join the data-dots planted in its ad platform by seeking to deflect blame, bury key details and bore reporters with a magnitude of unnecessary detail, with the hope that they may move their inquisitiveness somewhere else.

1. Facebook apps mined Facebook users’ data by Cambridge Analytica

One of the best things that The Great Hack does is breaking down how Cambridge Analytica- which was previously called the SCL elections- collected data and used it for its political clients. Christopher Wylie, a data consultant who helped build the company, describes how he worked with the team on creating the Facebook apps that would skim data from not just Facebook users who were using the app, but everyone is friends with that user. These apps were based on ‘personality tests’ and they collected data on likes, private messages and statuses. This data was then used to create a personality profile of every voter in the US again all through Cambridge Analytica. Christopher used the phrase ‘propaganda machine.’

2. The Leave EU campaign also employed Cambridge Analytica to assist the win of the Brexit vote.

Alexander Nix (CEO OF Cambridge Analytica) denied involvement with the Leave Brexit Campaign, who were a group who heavily influenced the vote to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in June 2016. Carol Cadwalladr the reporter who connected the company and the Brexit group, faced a harsh smear campaign made by Cambridge Analytica after she published her report.

3. The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to run data operations during the 2016 election

Cambridge Analytica were hired to take charge of the Trump Campaign to run the data operations during the 2016 election. Steve Bannon, who eventually became Trump’s chief strategist, was also reportedly vice president of Cambridge Analytica’s board. The company helped the campaign identify voters to target through ads, and gave advice on how best to focus its approach, such as where to make campaign stops. They also assisted with strategic communication, for example what to say during speeches. Nix said last year during an interview with CNET sister site TechRepublic, ‘’The applications to what we do are endless.’’

4. The UK and US are not the only national campaigns the company was hired to work on

According to the Netflix documentary, Cambridge Analyitca were working on 10 national campaigns for a presidential election or prime minister every year. Countries, who weren’t in the US and UK included Romania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Malaysia.

5. David Carroll never received his data from Cambridge Analytica

Carroll carried out a futile attempt to take on Cambridge Analytica in court in an attempt to get back the information that was collected on him without him being aware or his permission to do so. Carroll speaks urgently on the menaces on our privacy and our rights to live as a private citizen. He explains that by the time his children are older their entire lives will have been drilled into Big Data.

David Carroll says in the documentary that he accepts he’ll most likely never get his data back. Cambridge Analytica then went on to plead guilty for not giving Carroll his data.

6. Yes, Cambridge Analytica is gone. However, there is most likely more data collection companies out there like it.

Following a Channel 4 undercover video on May 1st, 2018 Cambridge Analytica was shut down. This video shown the CEO boasting about the company’s role in helping Trump’s election. During an interview, the former COO Julian Wheatland says it isn’t about just one company because ‘the technology is still out there.’ Later, Coldwater points to evidence that WhatsApp may have influenced the Brazil election and Facebook was used to incite ‘racial hatred’ in Myanmar, leading to genocide.

7. It was recently reported that data has surpassed oil as the most valuable resource on earth.

Although, as suggested on The Great Hack, Cambridge Analytica was quicker than most to recognise the potential profit to be made in harvesting data. Of course, the company appealed to clients by claiming they could supply 5,000 data points on every American voter and as the documentary goes on to claim, it was able to deliver on this promise through the tried and tested technique of Facebook personality quizzes.

8. It proved how easy it is to gather mass amounts of data

The Great Hack opened many people’s eyes to how previous companies utilisedFacebook Apps that had special permission to harvest day not just from those who used the app but their friends as well. Chris Wiley, a previous employee of Cambridge Analytica who is now a whistleblower helped to reveal the inner workings of the organisation. He said

"Even if you were friends with someone who had used the app, you would not have any way of knowing what information was taken from your status updates, private messages or likes."

This documentary is definitely worth a watch for the coarse advocacy of digital rights. Although, be forewarned that you may see it as very one sided. The Great Hack is sometimes captivating, mainly when its delving into the shrouded internal workings of Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica plainly breached Facebook user’s confidence. There’s far less evidence that it’s ‘psychographic’ tactics worked any better than traditional canvassing and broadly targeted ads. As a character-focused work, The Great Hack doesn’t build a serious case for Cambridge Analytica actually hacking people's brains or helping Trump get elected. It simply takes for granted that the firm posed a unique and existential threat to democracy and people like Kaiser and Carroll are changing the course of history.

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