‘The Great Hack’ Review: How Your Data Became a Commodity

This review of “The Great Hack” is the first article that I’ve felt mildly concerned about emailing to my editors. Why am I even using the internet? Why is Twitter open on another tab? Wouldn’t it be smarter to disconnect, move to the woods and live off the land?

These are some of the questions inspired by the movie, an eye-opening new documentary from Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”) and Karim Amer that explores how our personal data has become a commodity that is collected, analyzed and then spit back at us in the form of targeted messaging, with the hope of changing our behavior, as one of the movie’s subjects puts it. You can see the movie in theaters or watch it on Netflix, but if you watch it on Netflix, Netflix might know and then direct you to other alarming documentaries.

If that seems harmless enough, the film explores how such tactics might have played a role in the 2016 presidential election. The target is squarely on Cambridge Analytica, the defunct political data firm backed by the Republican donor Robert Mercer. According to Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica executive turned turncoat who emerges as the documentary’s principal figure, the firm’s strategy was to target voters whom it called “persuadables” in swing states and then to bombard them with content supposedly pushing them to vote for Donald J. Trump.

That assertion is one of several unsubstantiated claims in the film. In 2017, The New York Times reported that the “psychographics” technology that ostensibly set Cambridge apart from other firms remains unproved, and that Cambridge executives admitted that the technology had not been used in the Trump campaign.

But if the paranoia level could probably withstand a slight reduction, much of the movie feels utterly credible. Other interviewees include the journalist Carole Cadwalladr, one of the authors of the collaborative report by The New York Times, The Guardian and The Observer of London that exposed how Cambridge Analytica harvested information from the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users. David Carroll, who teaches media design at Parsons, has tried to use the laws in Britain to obtain whatever information the firm had on him. The whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, shown testifying before a committee of the British Parliament, compares cheating in the democratic process to doping in the Olympics.

But most vexing is Kaiser, whose motives for speaking out — not least to the filmmakers — are never entirely disentangled. She is shown luxuriating in a pool “somewhere in Thailand.” A former social-media worker for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, she comes across as a selectively savvy, status-conscious opportunist with flexible politics who is remorseful for her work with Cambridge Analytica, but only to a point. (After all, she says, in theory these voters were on the fence. “In the end,” she says, “they’re the ones that go to the ballot box and make their decision.”)

That Kaiser has turned into an advocate for owning your own data makes “The Great Hack” seem vaguely uplifting, the story of her education. But she is still not someone you would trust with your data.

The Great Hack

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.

The Great Hack

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