The Great Hack

July 31, 2019

Today, I will be talking about the new Netflix documentary, The Great Hack. The documentary takes a look inside the Cambridge Analytica scandal that was tied to both Brexit and the US presidential election of 2016. Yeah, that one.

Before we get into the review, I want to note that this post contains spoilers for the documentary. If you don’t want the story revealed, please stop reading now. However, to be fair, if this is the first you are hearing of Cambridge Analytica, I would like to know the rock you have been living under.

The movie opens up with a powerful image from the Burning Man festival. Brittany Kaiser writes “Cambridge Analytica” on an architectural sculpture and ties a whistle to it. From there, the documentary takes a long look into the questions: Who is feeding us fear? And how?

Following that arresting opening, we are introduced to a cast including Chris Wylie and David Carroll. Wylie, the first face of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is the whistle-blower. Carroll, a New York–based professor, made headlines challenging Cambridge Analytica (before it was cool) while trying to get his data from Cambridge Analytica.

The directors set the stage with showing two sides of the story. Wylie represents the political machine that was Cambridge Analytica. Carroll is the voice of the everyday social media user who was being exploited by the networks and companies like Cambridge Analytica for gains based upon his data.

Now, privacy and social network data are topics my colleagues and I cover quite a bit on Kaspersky Daily as well as on the Transatlantic Cable podcast. To put it bluntly, we humans overshare on social media. And many of us do not read EULAs. It doesn’t take a cybergenius to connect the dots — we overshare in exchange for use of the platform that we are oversharing on. Of course, we effectively pay for that “free” access with our data, which companies, advertisers, and political campaigns around the world can mine for their purposes.

So, what does that have to do with you?

Well, as Wylie and Carroll mentioned, it means that Cambridge Analytica not only got the data you shared in social media, but according to the terms of their EULA, they also were able to scrape data from the public profiles of a user’s social graph. That distinction may seem fine, but the company was able to use that data to build out psychological profiles of the American voter.

Enter Brittany Kaiser.

Kaiser, previously a campaign intern for Barack Obama, took her social media experience from the blue team over to the red team. In her role with Cambridge Analytica, working for the campaigns of Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump, she used the same playbook to influence elections at scale.

The idea was to take the data available from users’ social graphs to reshape and rebuild the information they consumed so as to influence the way they voted in the election. That information was not always factual or unbiased, but it was used effectively.

That makes Kaiser a central character, and indeed she plays the part of villain, hero, martyr, confused protagonist, and many more over the course of the documentary. Her role is ultimately to reflect on her actions at Cambridge Analytica and how her testimony and whistle-blowing would help shape our view of elections in the social media age.

If you lived in the US or in the UK over the past five-plus years, you probably heard a lot about this story and how it influenced both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, the documentary also shows similar things happening in other countries. Cambridge Analytica and its parent company already had experience in both military and sociopolitical campaigns.

Another protagonist, Carole Cadwalladr showcases the media side of the story. Through the Guardian and Observer journalist we learn more about how the story was covered, and the headwinds and challenges the media faced covering it.

Her role also speaks to the larger audience of the inadequacy of election law to battle the use of fake news and other social media–weaponizing tactics. Cadwalladr asks the question on the tip of many wagging tongues these days: Is it possible to have a fair election today?

It’s an important question, and not one I can answer here.

But what did you think?

With its cleanly interwoven stories, this tale of a smallish player becoming a focal point in a much bigger picture was fast paced — more like a psychological movie than a documentary. So, hats off to the team at Netflix for that.

Overall, the film is a really stark wakeup call for those who use social networks on a daily basis — so, pretty much all of us — and makes you wonder if and how your data is being used against you. Or, more seriously, whether you can be manipulated. I do think that the answer is yes, although I may be among the cynical crowd, and I would recommend viewing the movie and sharing with younger family members or those who overshare or tend to be hyperpolitical on social networks in general.

In a nutshell, we trade our privacy and data for the “free” usage of the platforms. Sure, there is no such thing as a free lunch, but no one expected the lunch to include a side of psychological warfare.

The film runs fast and keeps you engaged. It also made me question, yet again, why we actually use these networks in the first place. And it made me think about the future of elections, democracy, and also social discord. For a change, the villain is not the big scary Russians, but rather the Western geeks behind keyboards. Talk about flipping Hollywood scripts on their head! From bullies to nerds as classic movie villains — but this is real life, not Hollywood.

We are on the edge of a new world, and that brings us back out of the movies and to real life in our connected world. Data is currency, and it is quite valuable. Will we, as humans, come to realize that and find a way to control the destiny of our data? I’m on the edge of my seat. For now, I’ll keep watching — and helping the best I can to guard everyone’s privacy.

Midori rating: The Great Hack gets 4 out of 5

Midori rating: The Great Hack gets 4 out of 5

What can you do?

Those watching the documentary are probably feeling somewhat helpless in the battle for privacy and ownership over their own personal data. “Crap, what can I do to protect my data?” For starters, I would recommend our article “10 tips for improving your privacy on the Internet.” When it comes to social networks, consider what you share and what networks you are using. If you are not using one, consider deleting the account. Here is a list of articles on how you can keep your data while deleting a social network.