It’s All in the Data (Documentary Review: “The Great Hack”)

The shocking truth behind the biggest manipulation of data in the history of mankind. And this is just the tipping point.

SnapShot Plot

If the new Netflix documentary, The Great Hack is not perceived as THE cautionary tale of our times, I’m hard pressed to identify its replacement. It’s a carefully crafted jigsaw puzzle of a film which (mostly successfully) attempts to unravel the mess that is the intersection between digital privacy and data mining within the landscape of modern society. How? By virtue of a trusted detective story conceit focusing on three central characters, and a virtual minefield of special effects which elaborately illustrate the digital excreta trailing off of each and every intersection with our smart devices and computers.

By now we are very familiar with the data mining scandal surrounding Facebook, rife with allegations of illegal sharing (or exposure) of user data with third party companies whose intentions mostly revolved around targeted advertising, done outside the auspices of user consent. So if that sounds like uber effective marketing on the fringes of illegality, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What propelled the story even deeper into the world of the nefarious was Facebook’s illicit relationship with the British political research company, Cambridge Analytica. Yes, that Cambridge Analytica, the one whose clients included both the Trump and Ted Cruz presidential campaigns as well as the Brexit lobby.

The Great Hack concerns itself with a reverse-lookup kind of investigation, launched by David Carroll, an American professor at NYC’s Parsons School of Design who actually brought a suit against Cambridge Analytica to force them into giving him back his entire data file. His very own data. He did this on the heels of the revelation that the company had improperly accessed the data of 87 million Facebook users, which was used in political ads on behalf of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The reporter at the center of the story is Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist for Britain’s The Guardian, who spent years on the expose which (along with the New York Times and Britain’s Channel 4 News) blew the cover off the data hack of the century. This led to the eventual demise in 2018 of Cambridge Analytica, and to the (continuing) legal troubles and stock devaluation of Facebook, with Founder, Mark Zuckerberg actually testifying before Congress. The third person, hovering in a moral no-man’s-land in the narrative, is ex-Cambridge Analytica Director of Business Development, Brittany Kaiser. Kaiser is a bewilderingly odd character: an ex Obama volunteer who (for seemingly mysterious reasons) winds up at Cambridge Analytica. She actually wrote the first contract with the Trump campaign, fast becoming an invaluable asset to the company’s CEO, Alexander Nix. Why and how she became a whistle-blower herself is an intriguing central thread in the documentary.

As the narrative unfurls – like an endless coded sequence of 1s and 0s – what we realize is a truism beating at the heart of our modern digital world. Namely . . . that Data Rights are Human Rights. We as Americans seem to be coming late to the game in terms of understanding this maxim widely held by Europeans for as long as the digital age has become a reality. Better late than never, however.

Parting Shot

Remember that scene in the 2002 Tom Cruise film, Minority Report, in which the protagonist is literally (or ‘actually virtually’) walking through holographic, super-imposed and highly targeted advertising campaigns? We knew at that moment we were glimpsing a post-modern dystopian future, right? It seems almost picturesque by today’s standards of intrusive technology. So apologies to Sir Francis Bacon for conflating his widely attributed aphorism, ‘Knowledge is Power’ to this morphing of the original: ‘If Knowledge is Power, with Great Power comes Great Responsibility.’ You don’t have to be a Hack to know that’s not Fake News.

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YouTube Trailer:


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