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Film

The Great Hack

The Great Hack

Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim, directors
Netflix
2019
139 minutes

Under what circumstances should your personal information on social media be shared, and who should be the gatekeeper? These are among the most important questions facing society and are the focus of The Great Hack, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm founded by American far-right players Robert Mercer and Stephen Bannon, started its quest to gain access to personal data with an online survey taken by 300,000 consenting Facebook users. From there, it gained unauthorized access to the personal information of 87 million networked profiles. The company used this information to collect voter data on behalf of Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, with the goal of influencing the 2016 election through devious targeted advertising. A combination of investigative journalism, lawsuits, and whistleblowers broke the story, leading in 2018 to Cambridge Analytica’s demise and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stonewalling testimony before the U.S. Congress.

The Great Hack follows Parsons School of Design professor David Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica to find out what information the company had about him. Carroll serves as a champion of individual data protection, appearing thoughtful and determined. Followed at much greater length is Brittany Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica business director turned whistleblower. A problem for the film is that Kaiser comes across as unlikable—her motivation opaque and her politics opportunistic. As the pressure on her mounts, however, details emerge that humanize some of her choices and suggest that she is more sympathetic than she first appears.

The Great Hack is complex and suspenseful. It also has some terrific CGI animation. The film screened at Sundance was too long at well over 2 hours and would benefit from editing before its appearance on Netflix. The issues it explores will not have been solved by then.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Cell, Developmental, and Regenerative Biology, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY 10029, USA.