The idea that social media companies protect their users’ personal information has always been a farce, but data rights became an especially pressing issue during the 2016 presidential election when British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested individuals’ Facebook data to assist Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Netflix’s documentary “The Great Hack” takes a deep dive into the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that contributed to Trump’s eventual election while also giving a behind-the-scenes look at some of the data firm’s key figures. “The Great Hack” recently screened in Los Angeles as part of the International Documentary Association’s ongoing screening series.
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Although Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election serves as the primary news hook of “The Great Hack” — the firm’s reported connections to Brexit are also discussed — the documentary looks more broadly at data rights and the gradual erosion of privacy in recent years.
“The Great Hack” co-director Karim Amer, who answered audience questions after the IDA screening, argued that in an era when online storage of information is the new norm, data protection is of paramount importance. Amer long wanted to create a documentary about data rights, and said the political consequences of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal served as a topical jumping-off point. (See video from the conversation below.)
“We deserve to be part of a connected world where we’re not told by people like Mark Zuckerberg that this is the cost of innovation,” Amer said during the Q&A. “Democracy isn’t his to break and we shouldn’t be sitting idle.”
Amer said he was inspired to make a documentary on those issues after the 2014 Sony hack, which resulted in confidential personnel data being leaked from the studio. However, the project was stalled because he couldn’t secure interviews with Sony executives.
That wasn’t the case with “The Great Hack,” which features interviews with several former Cambridge Analytica employees and executives. Much of the documentary’s insider information comes through multiple interviews with former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, who secured the firm’s contract with Trump. Kaiser eventually left the company, testified in the U.K. Parliament, and has since rebranded herself as a data rights activist.
Though Cambridge Analytica shuttered in the wake of the scandal, Amer argued that many of the firm’s key staff will migrate to similarly malicious companies, if they haven’t already. Billionaire right wing donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer were among the firm’s primary investors, while Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon served as vice president of Cambridge Analytica’s board. Data Propria, a company created by former Cambridge Analytica officials, is currently working for Trump’s 2020 campaign.
As for Facebook and other social media platforms, Amer argued that United States politicians needed to hold tech companies accountable and added that citizens need to stress the importance of data security to their elected representatives.
“I think Silicon Valley will be viewed as one of the most selfish industries in history,” Amer said during the Q&A. “The idea that innovation can blindly get us there and that no kind of focus on ethical framework is needed. This is where we’re at, but we’re living in the one country in the world that has the ability to legislate these companies. The question is, ‘Do we have the courage to do that and hold these companies accountable?’”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.
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