While the story of Cambridge Analytica is arguably fascinating regardless of who’s telling it, directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim make the wise decision to begin with a profile of David Carroll. Carroll embodies the relentless curiosity THE GREAT HACK seeks to encourage, ultimately suing the firm for failing to disclose what information it had gathered on him. This is cast not only as a simple request, but a basic human right. Subsequently, even people who aren’t tech-savvy will run a full gamut of emotions as the lawsuit progresses towards a bittersweet conclusion. There’s a symbolic victory in the role Carroll played to prove Cambridge Analytica was operating illegally, but it’s hard not to feel like he was screwed over by their bankruptcy filings mere days before a ruling in his favour was reached.
After focusing on Carroll throughout the film’s first half, directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim turn their attention to former high-ranking Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser in the second. It’s a smart choice which builds viewer investment in personal data rights before presenting the clearest portrait of how these rights are being challenged. By recounting the firm’s origins assisting military and political campaigns, we see a clear evolution from broad guerrilla tactics into targeted ads, customised to individual Facebook users based on data profiles. Most harrowingly, Kaiser herself likens these profiles to psychological warfare.
THE GREAT HACK seems to suggest that because this technology is still relatively new, each of us must actively form an opinion on its boundaries. However, the film doesn’t explicitly deal with this idea enough, which is frustrating since some of its subjects have clearly done so. For instance, Kaiser appears genuinely remorseful for her actions and is unwilling to even reveal her location during some interviews, yet Amer and Noujaim never explore whether her actions, or those of her colleague turned fellow whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, should be considered crimes. If they currently aren’t, is it simply because the law is lagging behind society? Beyond the broad concept of ‘owning one’s data’, there is very little consideration for what actions we must take.
I imagine this film’s shortcomings are the result of trying to handle such a recent event. There’s lots for Amer and Noujaim to balance between factually chronicling the scandal with its subjects’ insights, all of which are handled well notwithstanding their limited scope. For viewers like me who come into THE GREAT HACK without much of an understanding of Cambridge Analytica, it’s a great introduction and addictive viewing in general, even though it won’t fully satisfy your interest on its own.