Not Quite The Great Hack But A Relevant Eye-Opener About Data Privacy

Prisha Batra - 58 weeks ago

The Great Hack makes one aware of just how much can be at stake for each one of us when we share our personal data freely

(Professor David Carroll from Parsons School of Design in New York, one of the key protagonists in The Great Hack)

Ever wondered why you get pop-ups on your phone relating to products or services you must have recently availed or were planning to avail? How does the network operator on the other end know your preferences? Ever wondered if personal data that you enter to join social media sites could be misused without your consent? 

Answers to these questions lie in the context of data privacy and security. Increasingly, people have these doubts, and are aware of data misuse. Those with deeper interest have begun to ponder over the role of artificial intelligence and unregulated surveillance of one’s online behavior. Rising awareness about data privacy has raised questions about consumer conspiracies, leading to documentaries and media coverage that range from the informative to the extreme. 

Netflix’s new documentary, The Great Hack, rests somewhere in between. Through the lens of the Trump presidential campaign and election, directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer analyze the shady part played by Cambridge Analytica, a big data mining company that is now defunct. It focuses elaborately on how companies can exploit consumer sensitive data online to manipulate people’s behavior. But moving forward in a specific line, this documentary falls short of speaking about the larger implications - which are about the unregulated grey space in which online companies and businesses function. It doesn’t go beyond the skin deep in offering the role that privacy and consent play in today’s integrated global online universe. 

The story begins with David Carroll, a professor who aims to recover his personal data from Cambridge Analytica. An academic expert in this field, his simple request to the company - asking to return his personal details - triggers multiple levels of subterfuge by Cambridge Analytica. Carole Cadwalladr, a British investigative journalist with The Observer, brings in her perspective of investigating Cambridge Analytica for violation of the privacy rights of netizens. Cadwalladr’s reportage on this issue determined much for Cambridge Analytica before the eyes of political commisions and people because of it’s educative, revealatory nature. That the company maligned her reputation online, added a certain degree of alarm towards it’s aggression and intent.  

(Brittany Kaiser, ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, in a still from The Great Hack)

Brittany Kaiser, an ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica and currently a human rights activist, is the reluctant whistleblower, bringing in crucial details like timelines, rules that were bent by her employer and unsaid agreements between her employer company and Facebook, the source of all data. Kaiser is the most interesting aspect of this documentary, beginning with a  total lack of guilt over her past conduct, and following up with awakening of a conscience after Trump gets elected. Her morality compels her to tell the world about what exactly is happening with their data. She basically blows the lid on a complex scam that most common people would never quite grasp. 

The CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, has been portrayed as villain. Someone who actively manipulated an entire presidential campaign (Donald Trump’s) for the sake of money. The documentary, in this case, is visibly one sided as it doesn’t capture his side of reasoning and justification. Widely villifed by the media in the West for his role in this election, Nix comes across as opportunistic and so is Facebook Co-Founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg when he first blatantly refuses to know anything about data misuse that his behemoth company had indulged in. Facebook helped CA establish personalised and customer friendly advertisements that got them the inflow of personalised data for the campaign. The data was then worked upon using the OCEAN theory model of psychoanalysis. 

(A still from The Great Hack showing The Observer reporter Carole Cadwalladr at her office)

Watching Nix and Zuckerberg interact with senators in the US congress during their investigative committee questioning sessions serves as as eye opener. It is evident that these lawmakers are simply unaware and incapable of assessing the extent and reach of social media in manipulation of public opinion. Privacy laws, data sharing and data regulation laws are still getting formed across the world; understanding their scope is work in progress. In this case, lawmakers need to understand what is really at stake from the people they question, leaving room for half truths and opinions to be used as arguments. 

The Great Hack drums up a certain popular perspective that sharing data has dark, negative implications. But it falls short of asking the larger question of the extent of consent. When one consents to share one’s personal details with a website, does one agree for that information to be sold and shared for other purposes? One can safely assume that no rational netizen would consent to misuse of their data to help attain an electoral majority for political candidates. 

(Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer - director duo of The Great Hack)

In view of the current situation in USA, with more than 86% of Indians using digital devices and social media networks are also prone to widespread manipulation. The Personal Data Protection Bill passed in 2018 , Article 21 and Article 19(1)(a)of the Indian constitution that talks about the Fundamental rights of every citizen of having the Right to Liberty and Freedom of Speech. Entrepreneurs, Businessmen or Government Authorities exploiting consumer data without consent can be tried under the previously mentioned laws. While not argued and researched with 360 degree perspective, The Great Hack, with it’s positioning on the biggest streaming service, does make one aware of just how much can be at stake for each one of us when we share our personal data freely.


David Carroll / Brittany Kaiser / Carole Cadwalladr / The Great Hack / Netflix / Karim Amer / Jehane Noujaim / Documentary / Cambridge Analytica / Alexander Nix / Trump campaign / Brexit

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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