Now me, I’m not paranoid, I’m just peculiar. Or just careful, depending on your slant.
One late afternoon this past winter I was out doing myriad errands in my neighbourhood. I noticed a new coffee shop had opened. I decided to go in, consume a hot drink and warm up. I ordered something and was looking at my handful of change when the young woman behind the counter told me, loftily, “We’re cashless, cards only!”
I pleaded innocence of this and said I only had cash. “Since it’s your first time, I’ll give you the coffee if you put some change over there,” she said, directing me to put two toonies as far from her as possible. At this point the eight customers there were staring. “Oh my God,” they were thinking. “A guy who doesn’t have a debit card.” I don’t, actually. After the coffee shop I bought stuff at the drugstore and answered “No” to the inevitable question about having a points card. Very peculiar these days, I know. But, the data on me is limited.
The Great Hack (now streaming on Netflix) is about data. The object of legal threats in Britain, the documentary is visually stunning and it’s part thriller and part exposé, but mostly it’s a resounding warning.
The warning is about how deeply precious your data is. Only a fool would be unaware that the data we give up while shopping or browsing online, or to Facebook and Twitter, is used to sell us things. But it would be ultra-foolish to be unaware how personal data is hoarded and then used to remake and remodel the political landscape.
Maybe you’re sick of hearing about Brexit and how Facebook was used to manipulate minds during the U.S. election of 2016. Well, brace yourself, because there is still a lot to learn, and those two political events are the focus of The Great Hack. It’s a sprawling story with intriguing characters and at times it’s a mess of confusing allegations and stories, but its main point is always there – personal data is treasured, and we’re just giving it away, rarely reading the terms and conditions, because we think we’re just having fun.
The essential thread follows Professor David Carroll, of Parsons School of Design in New York, who wanted to find out what personal data of his was held by certain companies. This leads into the intricate web of the company Cambridge Analytica using data gleaned from Facebook in the battle over the Brexit referendum in Britain; what journalist Carole Cadwalladr found on investigating Cambridge Analytica; the emergence of young Canadian Christopher Wylie as a whistleblower; and the revelations about the Trump campaign using Facebook to target “persuadable” voters.
We see dramatic footage of raids by Britain’s data protection watchdog, emotional exposition at a parliamentary hearing in London and into this cauldron of confessions and revelations steps the most mercurial character of them all. That’s Brittany Kaiser, who worked for Cambridge Analytica on the Brexit issue and on the Trump campaign. Not that long ago Kaiser was a volunteer working on the Facebook page of Barack Obama. More recently she was co-operating with the Mueller investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election and alleged Trump campaign collusion with Russia.
At 31 years old, Kaiser is a walking, talking conundrum. In the doc she’s mostly interviewed while she’s at an exclusive resort in Thailand. Her motivations are always unclear. She says she wants to go back to the good-and-decent work she once did, but it’s hard to tell if this is a personal wish that will always be outstripped by her professional need to win on behalf of clients who want to undermine democracy and smash traditional political institutions.
One reaches the end of the documentary (made by co-directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer) with a strange mixture of anger and melancholy. What once seemed cool about the Internet seems sleazy. What you might remember as bafflement about the Brexit issue now becomes rage. And still there is the final realization about data: Many people have only themselves to blame – they give up information without thinking of the consequences. After watching it, it doesn’t seem peculiar at all to be paranoid.