“Who has seen an ad that has convinced you that your microphone is listening to your conversations?” David Carroll asks his students at the beginning of The Great Hack, Netflix’s new documentary about data privacy and online disinformation. Carroll chuckles nervously as almost every hand in the classroom shoots up.
The response is unsettling, but maybe not so surprising—a fitting introduction to a story about Cambridge Analytica, the now-infamous firm that provided the Trump campaign with ad-targeting data during the 2016 election. The company, as we now know, scraped Facebook quiz data to construct millions of psychographic profiles, which it then used to hyper-target voters with custom-made campaign ads. As whistleblower Christopher Wylie succinctly puts it later in the film, Cambridge Analytica isn’t a data science firm, but a “full-service propaganda machine.”
But while The Great Hack’s narrative about privacy and information warfare will be eye-opening to many, it largely fails to illustrate the bigger picture. The real “great hack” isn’t Cambridge’s ill-gotten data or Facebook’s failure to protect it. It’s the entire business model of Silicon Valley, which has incentivized the use of personal data to manipulate human behavior on a massive scale.
A few years before anyone had heard the name Cambridge Analytica, former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff coined a term for this phenomenon: Surveillance Capitalism. As she defines it, Surveillance Capitalism is an economic “logic of accumulation” that involves extracting personal data in often-unrecognizable ways, creating “new markets for behavioral prediction, modification, and control” that exploit this data as its primary resource.
In other words, it’s the entire M.O. of companies like Facebook and Google, which depend on users providing a constant stream of photos, likes, and other useful data that can be used to map relationships, measure emotional responses, and yes, serve ads. And when it comes to ads, the holy grail of advertising is having the ability to predict peoples’ behavior—and thus, manipulate it.
Consider this quote from Zuboff’s 2015 paper, which is attributed to an anonymous data scientist at an unnamed Silicon Valley company:
“The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us.”
As a writer and educator who has covered privacy for over a decade, I consider this quote the perfect summation of the Silicon Valley mindset. It’s my go-to reference when someone tells me that they’re creeped out by government surveillance, but totally fine with corporations like Amazon and Facebook collecting their data. Nefarious government programs like face recognition and predictive policing don’t just come out of the ether. They are an inevitable consequence of a system that incentivizes the endless accumulation of data for profit, which in turn fuels the machinery of government surveillance that is frequently wielded against immigrants, activists, and other marginalized groups.
When Cambridge Analytica came under the media spotlight, I hoped that maybe it would start a conversation about the surveillance industrial complex and the underlying capitalist structures that drive it. But The Great Hack focuses most of its running time on dissecting the symptoms: Specifically, how a company came to possess the terrifying power to sway elections, and how Facebook failed to stop it.
In one sequence, Brittany Kaiser, a dubiously-motivated former Cambridge executive and one of the film’s main subjects, explains how the company’s propaganda machine worked. It would first target “persuadables,” people whose psychographic profiles suggested they were open to suggestion. Once their specific triggers were identified, content was tailor-made to target their deepest fears and insecurities. “We bombarded them with ads,” Kaiser says in a voice-over, “until they saw the world the way we wanted them to. Until they voted for our candidate.”
The Great Hack / Netflix
Naturally, the film’s main antagonist is Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. He’s an undeniably sketchy dude, and the film shows him giving statements that are later contradicted by Kaiser and others, dodging media questions, and caught on hidden camera bragging about his conquests—including offering to use sex workers to entrap and discredit political opponents. We watch him squirm in hearings before the UK Parliament, where he is grilled about how his company’s manipulations scored victories for both the Trump campaign and the far-right Brexiteers, who first set in motion the U.K.’s tortuous departure from the European Union.
We then see brief clips of members of Congress tsk-tsk’ing Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s failure to prevent the whole debacle—to which Zuckerberg offers his standard, now-meaningless lines about being “very sorry” and promising to “do better.” But unlike Nix, the film seems to assume some amount of good faith in Zuckerberg, and in the tech industry as a whole.
In one scene toward the end of the film, Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who reported heavily on the Cambridge Analytica story, takes to the TED stage to confront Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and other tech leaders. Addressing “the gods of Silicon Valley,” she pleads with them to consider the harm they’ve done, and change their ways for the sake of democracy.
“This technology that you have invented has been amazing, but now it’s a crime scene, and you have the evidence,” says Cadwalladr. “And it’s not enough to say that you will do better in the future.”
The clip is intended as an empowering moment. We see a journalist speak truth to power and demand accountability from the tech platforms that mediate our world. But Cadwalladr doesn’t seem to consider that Silicon Valley titans like Zuckerberg—now a veteran of countless privacy scandals and subsequent apology tours—simply don’t care.
Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a $5 billion fine for a long history of privacy violations dating back to 2010. While unprecedented, the “punishment” was actually a great deal for the company, which made roughly four times that amount in revenue last quarter. When the judgement was announced, Facebook’s stock price didn’t even take a dent—it actually went up.
Even better for Facebook, the fine effectively absolved the company and its executives for nearly a decade’s worth of privacy debacles and deceptive practices—including allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from 87 million people.
Surveillance Capitalism is the business model of Silicon Valley. If endless accumulation of data is the central logic of the industry, can we really expect anything to meaningfully change? Instead of asking how Facebook should be punished, shouldn’t be asking whether Facebook should exist at all?
At the conclusion of The Great Hack, it’s ironically Julian Wheatland, Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO, who touches on what should be the film’s central tragedy: that this whole disaster was hard-coded into the very system that gave birth to modern day Silicon Valley in the first place.
“There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica,” he confesses to the camera. “It just sucks for me it was Cambridge Analytica.”