Home Theatre: Beware of big data
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack
So far in this column, I've written about films and shows that I recommend — wholeheartedly in most cases, and with some reservations in others. Today I'm writing of something that I am a lot more ambivalent about. The new Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, tackles an important subject — the commodification of our personal data in today's digital age — through the lens of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it does so in an overly sensational way (with voiceover lines like "How did the dream of a connected world tear us apart?").
The filmmakers follow the Cambridge Analytica scandal through the eyes of three principal characters — Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica; David Carroll, an associate professor of media design, who sued the company for access to his own data; and journalist Carole Cadwalladr. The scandal broke after 2016 US Elections, when it came to light that the personal data of millions were harvested and used to influence the outcome of the elections. A lot has been written about it since, but my own introduction to it came with the story written by Hannes Grasseger and Mikael Krogerus, and this story is shown in The Great Hack when Carroll speaks to Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician who provided research for that report. I reread that piece again in preparation for writing this and can recommend it without reserve as a good primer. This documentary too provides a decent introduction to it all, as long as you do not take it as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Carroll's story is the one I have the least issues with. It follows him using a British lawyer to get Cambridge Analytica (whose parent company was based in the UK — both companies have shut down since) to give him his data, which would then give some picture of the kind of data in question, as reports only mention that the company had as many as 5000 data points per person. The parts where he is talking in first person are engaging enough, but the ponderous voiceover he provides (including the one I mentioned before), really could have been done away with. Or at least done by an actual voice actor. Self-serious lines like "We were so in love with the gift of this free connectivity that no one bothered to read the terms and conditions" really come off a tad ridiculous. However, he also gets to say some lines that make an impact, like: "The data from our online activity [isn't] just evaporating...these digital traces of ourselves are being mined into a trillion-dollar-a-year industry."
Another thread has UK journalist Cadwalladr talking us through her investigation into Cambridge Analytica and their part in Brexit. We also get to see one of her primary sources, an ex-employee of the company, Christopher Wylie, who provides some interesting insight into how the Facebook data was gathered — apps which used special permissions to not just gather data on the person who uses the app, but also pull the data of their friends. Wylie styles himself as one of the people who helped set up Cambridge Analytica, but his role in the company and motivations for coming out as a whistleblower when he did seem suspect upon further investigation (a report says he only worked there part-time and there's a passing reference in the documentary itself to his attempts to form his own rival company and pitch to the Trump campaign). There's also something about Cadwalladr and her way of speaking that screams rhetoric, particularly towards the end in the clips of a TED Talk she gave earlier this year which she addressed to "the Gods of Silicon Valley."
The third main player the film follows is the one it opens with — Brittany Kaiser, who worked closely on all the high-profile campaigns that Cambridge Analytica was part of. The film clearly sets her up as some sort of hero and that's obviously problematic given the things she has knowingly done. The film, in fact, tells us about a lot of these things, but it still terms her and her actions "complicated." The makers clearly are sympathetic to her; we get to hear about how her parents lost their home and how Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix corrupted her. None of this has any purpose except to offer her moral redemption that I'm not sure she deserves. But her story does offer a lot of insight into the workings of the company and how it all unfolded and eventually collapsed.
It is also more than a little ironic that Netflix is backing this documentary, when it too is guilty of, in Carroll's words, "feeding [us] a steady stream of content built for and seen only by [us]" through means that are not entirely transparent.
But all told, as a friend said to me, "People should be wary of what they click and what they type because almost always it's all connected, indelible, and irreversible. If the documentary establishes that, I'm okay with the people involved profiting from it." The Great Hack does do that, and for that, I too am okay with it.