In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.
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The Great Hack could be another bleak episode of Netflix’s techno-dystopian horror series Black Mirror. A seedy analytics company weaponises millions of data points extracted from unwitting social media users, only to manipulate their political worldviews en masse, foment intercultural conflicts, and, ultimately, usher in an authoritarian leadership. Unfortunately The Great Hack is a documentary.
Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s expose examines Cambridge Analytica, the firm that harvested Facebook’s user data to - allegedly - throw the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in the US and the Brexit referendum in the UK.
The film revolves primarily around three subjects. First, there’s Professor David Carroll from the Parsons School of Design, in New York, who in the aftermath of the 2016 election submits a data subject access request to Cambridge Analytica so he can understand how his data was used. Then there’s journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who broke the Cambridge Analytica story in The Observer in March 2018 (and subsequently became a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize); finally, there’s Brittany Kaiser, the former director of business development for Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower, who provides evidence against her former employer.
While Carroll becomes an easy proxy for the everyman seeking to make sense of the dark arts of data, and Cadwalladr shines as the brave and steady voice of truth, the unlikely focus of much of the film is Brittany Kaiser, who receives sympathetic treatment – although she is the one who facilitated the Trump-Cambridge Analytica partnership in the first place.
The Great Hack becomes Kaiser’s story of redemption. She appears quirky, thoughtful, articulate and vulnerable all at once. The film dips into her past as an intern for Obama’s 2008 election campaign, where she was part of the Facebook strategy team, and then her time as a human rights advocate – all this in stark contrast to the right-wing identity she embraced while at Cambridge Analytica. The film frames her as someone who has wandered far from her true self and who must now return to authenticity through a difficult act of self-sacrifice.
Noujaim and Amer even reveal how extreme financial struggles at home led Kaiser to join Cambridge Analytica in the first place. Yet viewers will have to decide for themselves whether they believe she is a victim and whether her sudden change of allegiance is genuine or self-serving. It’s a fitting challenge, considering the film questions narratives of politics and group identity in a post-truth era, and asks viewers to do the same.
While the film doesn’t suggest a concrete solution to combating data warfare, it does frame data rights as human rights. Further, it highlights the personal responsibility of users to be critical of how their data is used, much like Carroll tenaciously does through the documentary.
The film, however, speaks to the moral and ethical responsibilities of data corporations too. In an excerpt from her TED talk near the end of the film, Cadwalladr addresses tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter as “the gods of Silicon Valley”. She urges their leaders to be on the right side of history. While this moves her audience to applause, it does skirt the issue that corporations are rarely motivated by morality. The documentary itself doesn’t go beyond suggesting that big data needs regulation, though this is increasingly obvious to even casual observers.
Instead, there’s a focus on individual duty.
Carroll addresses his class towards the end of the film: “As individuals we can limit the flood of data that we’re leaking all over the place. But there’s no silver bullet. There’s no way to go off the grid, so you have to understand how your data is affecting your life. Our dignity as humans is at stake.”
He continues in a voiceover: “The hardest part in all of this is that these wreckage sites and crippling divisions begin with the manipulation of one individual. Then another. And another. So I can’t help but ask myself: can I be manipulated? Can you?”
The film puts the onus on the user, to build his or her critical awareness - as big-data regulation remains an uphill battle. Yet a look into how we may begin regulating big data companies, or even legislative responses like the EU General Data Protection Act that came into effect May 2018, go unaddressed.
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the irony of distributing such a film on Netflix, a company that is equally in the data business of profiling tastes and user personalities. Its sophisticated recommendation algorithms class viewers into highly micro-targeted groups, based on common viewing histories. It’s a process that’s only refined further with interactive content like the Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure drama where viewers can control the protagonist’s actions by selecting on-screen options.
By carefully logging and analysing every decision, Netflix can form insights to structure future programming. Or with broader access to user data, it could potentially corroborate viewing tastes with online activity, purchasing history, and social media behaviour. Netflix, after all, is one of Facebook’s many partners, along with Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. In 2018 the New York Times revealed how Facebook offered its big-data partners access to users’ personal information without consent. These partners were considered extensions of Facebook and were therefore exempt from seeking additional consent. Both Netflix and Spotify had permissions to read users’ private messages.
“The wealthiest companies are technology companies: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Tesla,” Kaiser says at one point in the film. “And the reason why these companies are the most powerful companies in the world is because last year data surpassed oil in its value. Data is the most valuable asset on Earth. And these companies are valuable because they have been exploiting people’s assets.”
The Great Hack paints our volatile era of data surveillance compellingly as gloomy dystopia - but the story is far from over.