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Guardians

Are we a hacked society?

Netflix' "The Great Hack" which launches on 24th July, is an impressive piece of political film-making for the digital era.

We watched Netflix' new documentary "The Great Hack" by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim at a preview screening last week and had the chance to see some of the protagonists and the directors discussing the film at a panel last week.

The first thing you have to know about "The Great Hack": it is not about hacking computers. It is about hacking society. It is a powerful appeal for stronger privacy rights and stronger control of the big digital near-monopolists. In conclusion: it is not an easy movie. After the screening, I heard somebody say it was "hard work" and "at times hysterical". Well, it is a serious, complicated and heavy subject that during the nearly two hours isn't always entertaining. It makes for a significant film nevertheless.


The Great Hack | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com

Amer and Noujaim, who were Oscar-nominated for their film "The Square" about the Egyptian revolution, are political filmmakers. They started getting interested in digital data after the Sony Hack in 2014. "This changes everything", Amer said to friends at that time. While the cybersecurity community might have had a different opinion from a technological perspective, it definitely changed how hacking and cybersecurity were perceived in the public. Suddenly it was a deeply political topic.

Actually, at that time Mike Lerner, one of the executive producers, contacted us at Kaspersky and I helped facilitate interviews with the cybersecurity community at the Security Analyst Summit in 2015. None of these interviews though made it in the final film, as things took a different turn.

The Great Hack tells the story of the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal from the perspective of four deeply involved characters. Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist for the Guardian, David Carroll, a university teacher who requested his data from Cambridge Analytica and never received it, Brittany Kaiser, a former business development director at Cambridge Analytica and Julian Wheatland, Cambridge Analytica's former CEO.

The level of access these four gave the filmmakers is impressive. They are deeply involved, in a way that is often disturbing: After being introduced to Kaiser, Amer flew to meet her in Thailand, where she was vacationing. Those vacation scenes, by the pool and in the pool are genius filmmaking and totally out of place at the same time. The interviews with Kaiser, in which she disclosed internal documents and became an essential voice in the public proceedings against the company, are discomforting. At no point in the movie, she shows the tiniest sign of remorse about the more than three years in which she helped influence elections around the world. Her whole behaviour appears completely inappropriate for the situation she is in.

The second former CA-insider, Julian Wheatland, is still convinced that they did the right thing. "Cambridge Analytica hasn't been found to have done anything regulatory or legally wrong – and I believe it didn't because we invested a huge amount of efforts and legal fees to make sure we didn't", he still claims today. A statement, with which the filmmakers and Carole Cadwalladr strongly disagreed. At the same time, he called for "the big tech platforms like Facebook and Google to be regulated like a monopoly". Cadwalladr added to that: "Creating fear and uncertainty is being done so effectively through these platforms, with no regulation, and no accountability, and no oversight, and they are creating the world we are living in."

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, with its impact on politics and the public discussion of data rights, deserves this in-depth investigation that Amer and Noujaim conducted in the past years. The film does, what a good feature documentary should do – it addresses an important societal issue.

"It is time to write a new social contract and I think that social contract is no longer between citizens and their governments", Amer said after a pre-screening last week. "It is between citizens, governments and tech platforms, so perhaps it is the writing of a new user agreement that we should be focused on".

On Netflix from July 24th.