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Professor David Carroll, courtesy of Netflix

This is how your data is still being harvested

Netflix’s new documentary The Great Hack asks why we haven’t learned our lesson about data privacy in the wake of Cambridge Analytica

“We are the commodity” is the line that best sums up Netflix’s latest documentary The Great Hack. It tells the story of how information became more valuable than oil, and how we – social media users – handed over our data to tech companies who sold it on to defence contractors, politicians, and in some cases, authoritarian regimes. But more than this, the film asks why we haven’t learnt our lesson. As a society, we’re more conscious about data harvesting than ever before: just last week, Russian-owned app FaceApp and Chinese-owned platform TikTok came under fire for their privacy policies. And yet, we continue to sign up to these new technologies without questioning the consequences. 

The main focus of The Great Hack is Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based data intelligence agency co-founded by American right-wing politician and businessman Steve Bannon. Cambridge Analytica was allegedly hired by the Leave.EU campaign in the vote on Brexit and by the Republican Party in the 2016 US Election. By creating a Facebook quiz that gathers information about the social media platform’s users, Cambridge was able to profile voters and then target them with propaganda. This group of targets became known as ‘the persuadables’ – people’s whose minds could be changed in a way that could swing the vote. We know about this story thanks to whistleblowers like Chris Wylie, who worked for Cambridge Analytica and exposed the company’s dodgy inner workings back in 2018. 

The Great Hack picks up on Wylie’s work. Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, who made Netflix’s first Academy Award-nominated film The Square about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, deliver a vérité-style look at how tech companies have become the new super states. Amer tells Dazed that they could see similarities across both stories: “In the beginning of the Arab Spring, social media was being used primarily for good; it helped people to assemble, championed freedom of expression and all of a sudden, everybody with a camera phone became a member of the press. Silicon Valley was boasting about its tools being used for democracy, but then we saw the pendulum swing the other way in the Middle East and the same tools started being used for very undemocratic purposes: for authoritarian regimes to track people down, suppress people and influence them, while Silicon Valley stayed silent. “We didn’t think this would happen so quickly in Western society too, but I guess here we are.”

Amer and Noujaim spent four years making The Great Hack, following the story as it unfolded. They had the challenge of how to make visible that which we cannot see – data – and resolved this by focussing on three central characters who narrate the film. Chris Wylie chose not to participate, but the documentary follows Brittany Kaiser, another former employee of Cambridge Analytica (who comes off as much less likeable than Wylie), Carole Cadwalladr, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Observer journalist who broke the story in the mainstream press in 2017, and David Carroll, the American academic who launched a campaign against Cambridge Analytica by requesting to see what data the company held on him, via the UK courts. 

Over the phone from New York, Carroll explains that he first asked for his data back in January 2017, after the US Election. It started off as academic research, he tells Dazed, “Just curiosity – 'oh I can do this, so let's see what happens’!” 

However, as soon as he did it, he realised that his decision was going to be much, much bigger than his own data alone: “I knew it was going to be a big deal but I didn't know why or how. Then, when I immediately started having to interact with SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge, who are a defence company, I realised that the separation between the political and military sides of the company were flimsy.” 

In other words, the penny dropped that it was actually a British military contractor working with the US President/ “It was so unsettling and offensive to the idea of sovereignty,” he adds, “kind of like this new colonialism – that together these British aristocrats and American oligarchs were manipulating, or trying to manipulate, elections around the world.”

When asked how this “great hack” was allowed to happen, Amer says he “doesn’t think there was ever an evil plot to take over the world”, but asserts: “I do think we have a culture – especially the Silicon Valley culture of start-ups – that moves fast and breaks things. Cambridge Analytica wanted to be a successful multibillion-dollar company and were on track for doing so.”

As well as corporate greed, Amer says we didn’t see the hack coming partly because, on an individual level, we didn’t understand why anyone would want our data. “We have people who say, 'Well, I don't have anything to hide, I’m not that important. The government's not going to be interested in my emails or whatever. And so what if tech companies just want to show me these ads for shoes?’ But when you add all that data together, millions of people’s data, it suddenly becomes extremely powerful.”

"I think we're now living in an era where the sun never sets on Facebook. They are the new empire." – Karim Amer

Cadwalladr’s TED Talk on Facebook’s role in Brexit also delves into how the tech company might have got away with its actions. One reason, she argues, is because there’s no record of what Facebook ads people are shown. Everyone sees something different on their wall, and then the ads disappear. The only people who really know what happened are Facebook, she says, solemnly telling the audience: “Our laws don’t work anymore, our democracy is broken”. 

Amer says this is still the case. “I think we are still at a crossroads,” he says.“We should be trying to call for a new social contract as a society... but that contract is no longer between citizens and government, it's between citizens, government and technology platforms. My grandma in Egypt used to say 'the sun never sets on the British Empire', and I think we're now living in an era where the sun never sets on Facebook. They are the new empire, with over two billion constituents around the world, and with them launching their own currency. ‘How do we govern Facebook?’ is the new question we urgently need to answer.”

Carroll believes the law needs to rapidly change. Yes, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were eventually found to have broken the law, he says, but “the basic conclusions of the parliamentary reports and the information commission reports are that in the UK, the laws are not fit for purpose, which means they do need to be updated to prevent the next Cambridge Anayltica from getting away with  it, and of course in the US, there’s a big debate going on about making new laws around privacy.” 

As we see in the documentary, Brittany Kaiser tells the parliamentary investigation that Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica wanted to work in the French Elections for Marine le Pen and wanted to work in Germany and in the Netherlands, but part of the reason they couldn’t was that data protection enforcement is strong there. “That’s important – this idea of deterrents,” says Carroll, adding: “Britain and America need to put those kinds of effective deterrents in place.”

As for retrospective action, Amer points out that there has been minimal recourse for what happened during Brexit and the US election: “I mean nothing's happened to Cambridge other than it shut down,” Amer says. “Facebook got a $5 billion dollar fine but what they actually should've owed, if you look at the fine print, is nearly $2 trillion. Facebook stock went up the day that they got fined! So there have been few consequences, sadly.” 

On top of this, the fall out from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s various data hacks ripples around the world; The Great Hack explains how data intelligence and online propaganda campaigns reportedly took place in Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar and also in the Brazilian election of far-right leader President Jair Bolsanaro, who – like Trump – systematically targets minorities with his rhetoric. 

Reports on new technologies that may not be adequately protecting our data continue to emerge. Carroll was met with backlash last week after tweeting warnings about TikTok. When this is put to him, he says that with Chinese-owned apps, his “alarm bells go off”, explaining: “At least with a British company there are rights and privileges, but when you're dealing with an undemocratic country, you don't even get that. If people are aware of what the Chinese are doing to the Muslim population in the North West province of Xinjiang and they way that digital surveillance is creating a prison state with facial recognition and smart phone app surveilence being used to suppress people. The idea that people are feeding Chinese companies facial recognition and other kinds of data for their algorithms is terrifying to me. People are like, 'It’s fun! why would the Chinese government care about memes?' 

“But the Chinese government care about training facial recognition systems, and so gathering faces and emotions and different facial expressions is the name of the game. People don’t like me saying their favourite app is potentially an instrument of an autocratic regime, but unfortunately I think it could be.”

“The burden is on us as individuals to figure out what is safe and unsafe" – Professor David Carroll

So, what can we do to better protect ourselves? In the documentary, Carroll says: “We were so obsessed with connectivity, we forgot to read the terms and conditions.” Now, he elaborates: “The burden is on us as individuals to figure out what is safe and unsafe,” he explains, stating that apps from companies based in Russia and China and other undemocratic places should be approached with caution. “I would say the safest apps are probably based in Europe, because we have the GDPR.” 

Ultimately, you have to educate yourself, go into your settings, and uncheck the boxes.  “The 87 million people who were the victims of the Cambridge Analytica breach didn’t do that,” he adds. “Do regular audits of your own data protection. You also have to think twice before you even join apps: do you really want to jump on the bandwagon of something before you've properly looked into it?” 

The doc directors hope it will open more people’s eyes. “Where do you end the story when it's still unfolding?” Amer asks. “It's a challenge that we had with The Square and with this film. We’re still wondering whether or not handing over data is your admission fee for using new technology – like, is the deal you give over your data and in return you get services? That's the exchange we make on the cyber-highways every day.” 

Amer concludes that it all boils down to informed consent. “I don’t think we have any consent in the way in which our data is flying around the world, and in picking which aspects of our recordable behaviour we consent to be shared,” he says. “Part of informed consent is showing the journey of how your data can be weaponised. First, people need to be able to see what is happening. That's why we went to such lengths to show people through the documentary how the algorithms see them. This film is just an opening of a conversation, an attempt to create a visual language in an area where previously there has been a deficit visually, where things have been happening in the dark.”

The Great Hack is released on Netflix on 24th of July