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Documentary: 'The Great Hack'


If you've ever considered deleting your Facebook page or limiting the information you share on social media, you're not alone. After all, Facebook and the data firm Cambridge Analytica have been front and center in the online privacy debate since it was revealed last year that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data of millions of people's Facebook profiles without their consent. A new film called "The Great Hack" delves into the backstory behind Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and the 2016 election. The film follows a group of people, each with a different relationship to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. One of them is David Carroll, a college professor who sued Cambridge Analytica to access the data they had on him. And in the documentary, we learn how his experience changed his relationship to technology.


DAVID CARROLL: My daughter is 8. And my son is 4. Every app is carefully scrutinized before being installed. And, like, now I'm the dad who reads the privacy policy and says, no, you see here, they read your messages. Are you OK with that?

MCCAMMON: When I spoke with the filmmakers, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, they told me why they chose to begin the film with Carroll's story.

KARIM AMER: We wanted to find people who could embody the story and give it a physicality that had a journey to it. And David had a journey because here was someone who is saying, you know, I'm not going to wait for the Mueller report. I'm not going to wait for law enforcement. Our legal frameworks have been usurped by the reality of technology on our society. And so we need to act now. And we need to figure out what happened. So David's request for his data turned into this kind of David-versus-Goliath situation where he ended up finding this legal loophole and suing Cambridge Analytica in the United Kingdom in order to get his data back.

MCCAMMON: And another really fascinating character who is kind of on the opposite side of this story is Brittany Kaiser. And she was a former director of business development at Cambridge Analytica. She's called to testify in the British Parliament about the company's role in the Brexit campaign, the Leave EU campaign, which the company denied being involved in despite clear evidence that it was. So she's sort of a whistleblower. But her background is unusual for someone working for Cambridge Analytica. She interned with the Barack Obama campaign and worked with various human rights groups before landing there and ultimately working for Texas Senator Ted Cruz and, of course, Donald Trump. What do you make of Brittany Kaiser?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: She's a complicated person, and she has lived so many lives. She was connected with Julian Assange, was ultimately investigated by the Mueller investigation. And she's just turned 30. So here was somebody who could help people understand what was happening with our data and explain what had happened in these wreckage sites of the 2016 Trump campaign, what had happened with Brexit.

AMER: And shortly after we met her, she was in Parliament giving key testimony that really changed the narrative in the U.K. on how some of the groups like Leave EU participated in the referendum of Brexit. And this overall story is much bigger than Cambridge Analytica, Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian journalist who carries us through the film as well, says. This is about whether we can have a free and fair election ever again.

MCCAMMON: At one point in the film, Brittany Kaiser is questioned about her responsibility in all of this by Paul Hilder, who is a political technologist. And he asked her whether Cambridge Analytica - whether the model subverts democracy, and she pushes back.


BRITTANY KAISER: What this strategy is mostly meant to do is to identify people who are still considering many different options and educate them on some of the options that are out there. And if they're on the fence, then they can be persuaded to go one way or the other. Again, that is their own choice.


KAISER: But a lot of times, these are individual that...

HILDER: Is it their own choice?

KAISER: In the end, they're the ones that go to the ballot box and make their decision.


MCCAMMON: So what about this point that she makes, that voters ultimately pull the lever on their own, and no one's forcing them to do anything?

NOUJAIM: In terms of whether people are making a choice, you know, I think the big question comes with transparency and consent. When people don't know that they're being targeted and how they're being targeted, that's a problem.

MCCAMMON: Is there an argument to be made, though, that maybe this is just the world that we live in now? Technology is just going to get more powerful and smarter, and we can try to regulate it, we can try to mitigate some of this, but really, you know, if progressives, for example, don't like the way that the election turned out, then they need to figure out how to get better at using these same tools to advance their ideas.

AMER: Well, I think that's a valid point. We're currently operating in a system where we are not having consensual relationships with these platforms. We have no idea how our data is being used. We have no idea where it goes. And no matter how different we may see each other or how divided we become, we're still talking about human-to-human difference. Where we've entered into is a world where an AI, an amoral algorithm, is actually the superstructure that we are all serving.

MCCAMMON: I want to ask each of you quickly before we go. Has making this film changed the way that either of you conduct your personal life, the way that you use social media, your cell phone, for example?

NOUJAIM: It definitely has affected how much personal data I post. But I still use social media. I think that as people that are complicit in this, we do need to think about our involvement, hold these tech platforms accountable and hold our governments accountable.

AMER: Yeah. You know, I agree with Jehane. I refuse to delete my Facebook. It's how I reach my friends. You know, I think putting it solely on the user is the same logic that all the people in the world can just fix climate change without any kind of governmental or corporate involvement. It's not a level playing field, and I think that's why we're at a critical moment where we need a new social contract. However, the new social contract should not be between governments and citizens, as it used to be. The new social contract is between government, citizens and the tech platforms. So I'm looking for who the authors of the new user agreement will be. And I hope that that user agreement can be one in which technology and ethics go hand-in-hand.

MCCAMMON: That's Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, filmmakers behind "The Great Hack" on Netflix now. They also directed and produced the 2013 Academy Award-nominated documentary "The Square." And they joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thanks so much to both of you.

NOUJAIM: Thanks for having us.

AMER: Thanks, and goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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