Big data has become big news - so much so that a new Netflix original documentary has been released highlighting the problem of data ownership and state-sponsored crimes.
The film, starring former Cambridge Analytica Director Brittany Kaiser and investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, largely revolves around the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It explores how just a handful of companies seem to have an immeasurable influence on the information we see and our perception of it.
The Great Hack lays out, reasonably accessibly, how a few individuals from the political technology industry have sought to expose the ethically questionable manipulation of public votes in recent years. The viewer is taken on a journey which at first presents them with what most people already know – our personal data is being used to target us with specific ads and messages, mostly through social media, and it’s worth trillions of dollars.
However, it soon becomes apparent that the mechanisms that are used to run political social media campaigns are much more complex and sinister than you could imagine. The “weaponization” of data is now confirmed to be a very real issue and is already shaping societies across the globe; with boundless algorithms being created to mercilessly crunch through banks of information for instantaneous processing by faceless groups.
The documentary also calls into question whether our laws do enough to protect our data. GDPR laws that came into effect across the EU in 2018 (which will allegedly be retained even if the UK leaves the EU without a deal) have sought to tighten protections on the type and quantity of personal data which can legally be held by companies.
However, there are a few things which knock my confidence when it comes to restrictions such as GDPR. Firstly, the data which was used by Cambridge Analytica during the US presidential race was given up by individuals with their consent. People put their trust in an online quiz which took them minutes to complete, and gave it up to the internet, no questions asked.
Secondly, the institutions involved in the likes of the Leave.EU campaign clearly had no respect for the law, so now that the power of personal data has been truly realised, why would a pesky new law convince anyone not to utilise the holy grail of political and commercial influence? Alongside this, the lack of substantial fines for wrong-doing creates little deterrence for data-hungry companies. It’s also common knowledge that once data is "out there", it never ceases to exist. With all that is being gathered every second about our actions and online behaviours, would we ever be truly able to put a lid on things without a severe and widespread change of international networks? I’m sceptical.
The film and its protagonists have certainly caused a stir amongst a variety of communities. Arron Banks, the committed brexiteer and co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, is suing Carole Cadwalladr for her claims that he accepted large sums of money from the Russian state.
Cadwalladr has subsequently been supported by donors in a crowdfund campaign which has now raised well over £250,000. Brittany Kaiser, whose role (somewhat questionably) as a former human rights campaigner, and then as an employee of Cambridge Analytica, is still supplying further evidence of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with Leave.EU.
There’s no doubt there is more to unravel about the scandal – and many more scandals to come, but The Great Hack does a good job at shedding more light on the events of recent years.