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Culture Documentary

Big data business

American professor David Carroll sued to try to retrieve his personal data from Cambridge Analytica (Netflix)

Documentary

Big data business

The Great Hack delves into the data-sharing scandal between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

It must be hard to make a documentary about a topic the rest of the media has already covered ad nauseam.

Last year, Congress questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others about whether the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had misused 87 million Facebook users’ data during the 2016 election. The Great Hack further explores the dealings of this now-defunct consulting firm, focusing on a former employee and an American who tried to sue the company for his own data.

But the film offers little new info: It follows its main characters around the world for various interviews and hearings—and then as they check their phones. Between these scenes, for pizzaz, video graphics illustrate what it means to “scrape” Facebook data.

The documentarians try to compile a fuller picture of what Cambridge Analytica did: identify undecided voters (not a new phenomenon in politics) and influence them, sometimes by questionable methods.

That picture involves some odd characters. Former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser, for example, is way more excited to see her name in print than she probably should be. She worked first for Amnesty International and then for the Obama campaign’s social media team before switching to Cambridge Analytica, which she now speaks out against.

If you finish the documentary still fuzzy on whether this British company broke any laws while performing work for the Trump and Brexit campaigns, know that more than one government is still figuring that out right now too. Facebook was recently fined for its role in the scandal, and Cambridge Analytica pleaded guilty to not providing user data in a lawsuit by a particular date—but overall, the laws are still catching up to the technology.

But breaking the law is not the same thing as breaching an ethical boundary, which is what Cambridge Analytica probably did. Still, another former executive at the company, Julian Wheatland, summed up how this kind of data mining is the new normal for politics and advertising: “This is not about one company. This technology is going on unabated and will continue to go on.”