Did you know how important you are to the world’s movers and shakers? That’s the most charitable way to describe the unwitting technical mining of our personal data, and the manipulation of it in order to change our behavior, that’s turned into one of the most pressing issues of modern times.
Since it’s facilitated the rise in authoritarianism across the globe, it can’t be explained enough, or fought back against too strongly. With the new documentary “The Great Hack,” there’s now a sufficiently paranoid primer at hand to keep you questioning just what happens every time you engage with the world digitally, and why you should care about holding big tech accountable for their breaches of trust.
Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim focus primarily on the scandal involving Facebook and now-bankrupt Cambridge Analytica, the sinisterly ambitious data firm funded by Republican money man Robert Mercer, which notoriously harvested the personal information of over 50 million of the social media giant’s users in order to sway the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit vote with individually-targeted propaganda.
This full-throttle effort to upend democracy had to have been a sobering topic for the pair to dive into considering their last film, the Oscar-nominated “The Square,” memorably spotlit the positive impact Mark Zuckerberg’s outsized baby had as a mobilizing tool during the tumult and triumph of the Arab Spring. But while good stories about the ubiquity of technology in our lives are surely around the corner once more, “The Great Hack” convincingly stands out as a call to be vigilant about ferreting out the bad actors, regulating the behemoths, and putting an end to the weaponization of our data.
One of the movie’s main characters on the frontlines to make data rights a human rights movement is digital media professor David Carroll. He narrates the filmmakers’ thesis-like opening about how our online love went so horribly wrong (“It began with the dream of a connected world …”), and his lawsuit in the UK against Cambridge Analytica — in an effort to retrieve their illegally coopted data profile of him — is an ongoing storyline. One of the chillier things we learn is that Cambridge boasted having profiles of every American voter, to an accuracy of 5,000 data points.
We also meet intrepid British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, whose near-obsessive investigative work on Cambridge Analytica for The Guardian and The Observer has been instrumental in revealing to the public the dark arts going on behind the lax acquisition and political repurposing of our likes, purchases, and fears.
But the filmmakers were also diligent enough to find a key voice from inside the swamp: a young American woman and former Cambridge business development head named Brittany Kaiser, who becomes the film’s central dramatic figure after she’s discovered in Thailand laying low in the wake of the scandal. A onetime idealistic Obama 2008 digital campaigner drawn to Cambridge’s 2016 election work by the allure of power and money — she drew up the contract for the company’s Trump campaign work — Kaiser turns whistleblower. One could argue this turnabout was a conveniently face-saving tactic; her turn comes in the wake of the lid-busting reporting and negative publicity.
As we watch Kaiser prep for testimony in front of a fact-finding committee of British MPs, her nervous narrative compels as a redemptive tale, especially when she scoffs at her former boss Alexander Nix’s public obfuscations and lies on television. (Kaiser offered proof Cambridge was involved in the LeaveEU campaign.) But there’s just enough of the mercurial to her demeanor — alternatively wry, rueful, self-satisfied, and combative — that it’s unclear how much we should still trust her.
Kaiser’s story is like many of this saga’s pieces: We sense there’s a lot more left to be uncovered, if at the very least because even with Cambridge Analytica a defunct entity, their tactics for targeting voters are still out there, waiting to be deployed by other troublesome alliances between an anything-to-win campaign and an anything-for-money data outfit. And right now there’s little sense that lawmaking is ready to leap into the fray to protect free and fair elections from these types of attacks.
As eye-opening and propulsive as the movie is, Amer and Noujaim don’t always keep the thread of their multi-faceted narrative, which was going to be a daunting task for any well-meaning filmmaker trying to give you arresting personalities while parsing complex aspects of the digital world. But “The Great Hack,” with its simple but effective visual metaphor for the traces we leave in our daily lives — pixels released into the air with every card swipe and touchscreen tap — is as essential an explainer as we could get right now, with 2020 around the corner, about the hidden efforts to make who we are into what the powerful need us to be.