Worried that your data is being mined, bought, and sold to the highest bidder? The Great Hack, a fascinating new Netflix documentary from award-winning filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (The Square, Control Room, Startup.com) uncovers the dark world of data exploitation, offering astounding access to the personal journeys of key players in the explosive Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal. Amer and Noujaim continue their tradition of exploring the seismic ripples of social media with this riveting, complex film. Data has now surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable asset and it’s being weaponized to wage cultural and political warfare. The fact is that people everywhere, including nefarious political campaigns, are in a battle for control of our most intimate personal details, and it’s not getting any better. The Great Hack forces us to question the origin of the information we consume daily. What do we give up when we tap that phone or keyboard and share ourselves in the digital age?
I sat down with Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim to discuss this fascinating documentary and how what happened with Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 presidential campaign could easily happen again.
Danny Miller: I admit that I’ve never been that concerned with online privacy issues. I always think, “What do I have to hide? Who cares what people do with my data?” I never feel that vulnerable to being unduly influenced because I think that there’s nothing that can pass before my eyes on Facebook, for example, that would ever make me vote for someone like Donald Trump. I’m sure I’m wrong to be so cavalier and smug about the whole thing — can you explain to me why I should be more concerned?
Jehane Noujaim: You bring up a very good point because I think it’s human nature to think that we’re invulnerable. I do think that there’s a certain type of profile that was being targeted during the 2016 election: highly neurotic, fearful people who were prone to be affected by fear-based advertising. But remember, it’s not that everyone is persuadable in the same areas, there are lots of ways other than politics that people can be manipulated, otherwise there wouldn’t be a multibillion-dollar advertising industry.
Karim Amer: The truth is we made this film for people like you. We wanted to figure out how to speak to people who say they have nothing to hide and show them why it does matter?
Jehane Noujaim: We both used to feel the way that you do. Except in Egypt where we are political beings who are going against the grain. But in the United States, we also never thought we had anything to hide.
Karim Amer: We found that the Cambridge Analytica story captured the imagination of many people through a political lens. But in navigating the story, we realized that this wasn’t really about politics at all, it was about how you go about targeting and shaping people’s beliefs. I think as a society we haven’t fully realized how much of ourselves we give away every day. And what happens to all that stuff we give away — where does it go and how can it be used against us?
Yeah, it is pretty freaky how certain ads show up on our feeds based on what we’ve said online, even on a different app.
Karim Amer: I think one of the reasons why we don’t worry about it as that much here is that we have always subscribed to a certain values system in this country, we feel that it’s part of our DNA as Americans. But now we see what’s happening in other countries such as China which has a complete surveillance system on its young people, and what’s happened to the Rohingya people in Myanmar. And we’ve begun to see how people here have been targeted through Facebook and what happens when you give that kind of data control over to a different kind of belief system. I think what we’re realizing is that our legal structures have been usurped by the technologies. It’s not just one thing, but, for example, when I can take your credit card swipes and your health records and everything you’re doing online and get this bigger picture, it’s really something to be concerned about.
I certainly agree with the notion that I should own my data. And I never thought that much about how much data is coming off of me throughout the day until I saw that cool animation in your film.
Karim Amer: We didn’t want to start with politics, we wanted to start with things that happen every day in our data wormholes! It’s like we’ve all entered into this bartering system: we give up our data and we get all these cool services in return. I mean, we don’t pay any money at all to these places like Facebook or Google or WhatsApp, yet somehow they’re among the most profitable companies in the world, but we never stopped to think about how that’ possible. In the old system, we had companies like GM. We gave them money, we got a car in return. But how do these newer companies keep growing where we’re not paying for anything? And what is the cost of all this connectivity?
I used to wonder about things like that and now I’m so used to have it hardly ever crosses my mind. In the film we see Professor David Carroll’s quest to get Cambridge Analytica to give him all the data that they collected on him — why wouldn’t they just hand it over to him? What were they so afraid of?
Karim Amer: That’s a good question, and it brings up the reality we’re living in that in the United States we don’t own any of the collected information about ourselves — none of the Facebook information that exists about us, the Netflix information, anything we’ve done on Google, it’s all the company’s proprietary information thanks to the agreements we signed online when we first joined those services — agreements that none of us really read because it’s annoying so we just click “yes.” We just assume that technology is this amazing kind of God that came down and gave us all these gifts, we never imagined that any of that could go wrong.
So then how could David Carroll even bring that lawsuit, and again, why wouldn’t they just give it to him?
Jehane Noujaim: Because Cambridge Analytica processed all of its data in the UK and there, according to British law and the laws of the EU, anyone has the right to request their data, even if they don’t live there. Here we don’t have that right. British citizens who make such a request get their data, except from Cambridge Analytica. That company preferred to shut down rather than turn over any information to anyone after the huge scandal broke about the 2016 election.
Karim Amer:We still do not know to this day how the Facebook data that Cambridge had was cross-compared and how it created their perfect profile of each person. Think of it this way: it’s like people have this little Danny Miller voodoo doll of all your data, they know everything about you based on your online activities every day. And the smarter the company, the more inputs they put into their Danny Voodoo doll. They put all the information together and get a picture of all of Danny’s emotional impulses — this is what Danny is thinking right now. Forget about their profile of you from the last time you voted, now they know how you felt last week because of the increase in your activity on this site or that, the more information they get, the more there is to cross-reference. And no one really wants to show how all that information is manipulated which is why David Carroll hasn’t been successful in his lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica.
Amazing. And shocking that we don’t even have the right to request our data here in this country.
Karim Amer: There’s not enough political will for that to happen here yet, unfortunately. And there are a lot of people who don’t want you to have it because it changes the system that they’re benefitting from. It’s really been boom time here — everyone is just harvesting data for free and scraping people’s data without them even knowing it. You download an app, you think it’s a fun game, but it’s really tracking your location and selling that to create that voodoo doll of Danny! And one of the things that Cambridge Analytica was particularly good was voter suppression — campaigns designed to get people to not vote at all.
Wow. I have to say that one of the people I found the most fascinating in the film was Brittany Kaiser, the woman who worked for Cambridge Analytica. I’ve watched tons of footage of her online after seeing her in your film and I must have changed my feelings about her at least ten times. From “Wow, she’s so brilliant, good for her!” to “Ugh, what a dangerous opportunist!” It’s hard to determine what she really believes. Did you always understand her motivations?
Jehane Noujaim: I think one of the most fascinating journeys that you go on with characters in a documentary is when they are facing these enormous obstacles and they’re about to jump off a cliff and they let you jump off with them. And when they are in a raw enough situation that you can see their true human nature come out. That’s when these incredible moments happen and they can’t put on any masks.
So, with Brittany, do you think it was more about the fun of getting more power and influence than any commitment to ideology?
Jehane Noujaim: I do believe that she was attracted by the power of it all, and that she shifted. She’s very smart and I think she is someone who was attracted by the science of the data and the effectiveness of creating those algorithms. Which started with her analyzing data in human rights campaigns and seeing that she could actually be effective.
And then Darth Vader started circling.
Karim Amer: Exactly. That Darth Vader/Faust type of character in the form of Alexander Nix at Cambridge Analytica who tempted Brittany into doing something very different. Brittany Kaiser had begun as this idealistic Obama girl who had seen these tools use for creating hope and how these campaigns such as “Yes, We Can” could galvanize people. And then she ends up on the flip side seeing the tools used in a totally different way with Cambridge suppressing votes to help elect Donald Trump. For us, it was fascinating to see how someone could go from here to there. In her story, we see the pendulum swinging from technology being this positive force for change that does no evil to technology becoming this kind of wrecking ball. And, as David Carroll says, leaving us in this place where we are like the handmaidens to authoritarianism and wondering if we’re ever going to have a free and fair election again.
Scary. Did making this film change your own feelings about social media?
Karim Amer: Well, it’s definitely changed my feelings about Facebook as a company.
Do you still have an account?
Karim Amer: I do because I refuse to say that Facebook owns my connectivity to the friends that I have.
Yeah, I’m constantly weighing the advantages of what we get from Facebook with the risks.
Karim Amer: I think we all do now but it’s a false choice. Why does our admission ticket to the connected world have to be no privacy whatsoever? Buying and selling of our data without us having any rights to know what happens to it? Or the ability to change our preferences in any way. If we could at least have some control, some people might say “Okay, you can have access to this data, but not my sexual data or my medical data. We’re going to start seeing more and more issues with other aspects of our lives, whether it’s healthcare or social justice or whatever because increasingly there is no separation between digital and the physical — everything we do these days has a digital footprint so this is really only the beginning.