By Sindhuri Nandhakumar Aug. 02, 2019
How do you grapple with the irony that Netflix, a streaming platform that has acquired The Great Hack, a chilling documentary that profiles the invasion of privacy carried out during the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal, is itself guilty of controlling massive amounts of data about us?
Even for someone who has followed the string of data privacy scandals over the past two years, I sometimes struggle to explain the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal to those who might not know about it. It’s not so much because of the convoluted chain of events – starting with a personality quiz on Facebook, a Cambridge University academic, and ending with a Hillary Clinton smearing campaign designed to convince the American electorate to vote for c. Instead, I suspect it’s more to do with how overwhelmingly bewildered I feel, knowing that Cambridge Analytica’s actions form only a tip in the proverbial iceberg. As Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s The Great Hack, a documentary that profiles the Cambridge Analytica scandal, reveals, we know – some of – the events that unfolded only because of the dogged determinism of journalists and data rights activists to shed light on the story. Are there more egregious violations happening right now that we have no clue about? Definitely.
In the documentary – which is now streaming on Netflix – we’re shown how our behaviour on the internet, especially on our social media profiles, can be used not just to predict our behaviour but also to persuade us to do things a certain way. As British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (she helped break the story) says, “We literally cannot have a free and fair election” due to targeted marketing and advertising that proves to be successful because of how much personal data it is based on. In essence, every like, click, extension on our browser, and app that we install on our phones is mined to zero in on our vulnerabilities. The trouble is, it’s only going to get worse.
Over the course of two hours, The Great Hack introduces us to Brittany Kaiser, a former executive at Cambridge Analytica who turned whistleblower and is now hiding away at a plush resort in coastal Thailand. We meet Alexander Nix, the notorious former CEO of company, whose confessions about helping far-right governments in their electoral campaigns were secretly filmed, and reproduced in the documentary, and Cadwalladr, who, for years now, has been on CA’s trail, trying to understand the organisation’s role in influencing British voters to choose “leave” in the Brexit referendum. The Great Hack uses Cadwalladr as the bridge between the viewer and the proceedings of the data scandal: We are taken through the hearings in the UK and US where lawmakers grapple with the shocking discoveries about how the data of millions of American users was gathered by an innocent-looking personality quiz, which was then used to build personality profiles for the entire American electorate. It’s intercut with snippets of Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous testimony to the American Senate, admitting that, while the company had failed its users, the fault lies with Cambridge Analytica.
Data is the new oil, it is the most valuable asset on earth, and it is a “trillion-dollar-a-year industry”.
By the end of The Great Hack, there’s a feeling of fatalism in the air. David Carroll, the Parsons’ professor who attempted to reclaim the data stored about him by Cambridge Analytica, echoes what we’ve all come to understand by now. “By the time my daughter is 18, she’ll have 70,000 data points defining her. And currently, she has no rights, no control at all,” he admits. Hearing this, I found myself getting reminded of that scene in the second season of Big Little Lies, where Amabella Klein, a second-grader, has a panic attack in her classroom. “It’s because she’s stressed about climate change,” the doctors tell her parents. I feel a similar sense of anxiety and fatalism about data, and The Great Hack mirrors exactly those sentiments. Data is the new oil, it is the most valuable asset on earth, and it is a “trillion-dollar-a-year industry”.
Yet despite its flourishes, the one thing I found near impossible to ignore while watching The Great Hack was the consequences of watching it on Netflix. Netflix
Yet despite its flourishes, the one thing I found near impossible to ignore while watching The Great Hack was the consequences of watching it on Netflix.
If you’ve been following the Cambridge Analytica scandal intently, chances are that The Great Hack might offer no new information. Although, I’d argue that the documentary justifies itself by allowing a glimpse into the lives of the humans who engineered such a catastrophe and into the motivations behind those who decided to put an end to it. Yet despite its flourishes, the one thing I found near impossible to ignore while watching The Great Hack was the consequences of watching it on Netflix.
By the end of The Great Hack, there’s a feeling of fatalism in the air.
How do you grapple with the irony that Netflix, a streaming platform that has acquired this chilling documentary, is itself guilty of controlling massive amounts of data about us? Even if you’ve watched only 20 minutes of the documentary, it’s a given that Netflix’s algorithms will rely on that information to make personalised recommendations for you the next time you log on. It will, for instance, pick up on your penchant for political documentaries and suggest something like Dirty Money. If you’re watching a lot of films starring Brad Pitt, it will notice that and place his image on the thumbnail of every film he is in, so that you’ll be more likely to click on it. It might sound harmless, but by feeding on every aspect of your user behaviour, including how long you linger over a certain show, what kinds of shows you’re more likely to binge-watch, and at what time you watch the most television, Netflix’s algorithms are geared toward dissecting your personhood.
Last week, for instance, some users discovered that Netflix was tracking physical activity of some members, sometimes turning on location access without prompts. Why? To “improve video playback quality when a member is on the go”. I remember another case back in 2009, when an anonymous, “not out of the closet” lesbian mother filed a lawsuit against the streaming platform for sharing data-sets of viewer behaviour for a public competition. Even though these data-sets were anonymous, and didn’t have identifiable markers of their owners, those who knew how to game the system were quickly able to identify some of the people linked to the data. Even filmmakers aren’t excluded from the interferences of Netflix’s invasion of privacy. In an interview with GQ magazine last year, Cary Fukunaga, who directed Maniac for the streaming platform, called Netflix a “data company”. According to him, changes were made during the show’s script-writing process because algorithms predicted that keeping a certain passage would result in viewers losing “bingeing momentum”.
It can be argued that it’s unfair to judge the quality of a piece of film on the track record of the platform that gives it a home, but in the age that we live in, is it really possible to separate the two? The Great Hack is an effective reminder that every move of ours is being tracked so that it can be used to benefit big companies. Let’s not forget that Netflix is one of them.
Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a journalist, culture writer and podcaster with a special love for coconut milk and '90s Tamil movies. Follow her on Twitter @sindhurin