PCUK Reviews: The Great Hack

Cambridge Analytica was only a symptom of our Big Tech problem.

The Great Hack tells the story of Cambridge Analytica, of how the data of millions was taken without their knowledge, and used to produce perfectly targeted adverts for the populist right- from Vote Leave to Donald Trump. The campaigns sowed disinformation and spread division, and have rightfully been condemned. But as The Great Hack shows, Cambridge Analytica is only a manifestation of a much deeper problem.

Our data was misused because our technology market is broken.  

As we see, Big Tech can do what it likes, without consequence, due to a lack of regulation and competition in the industry. And without systemic change to our digital ecosystem, it will happen again and again.

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has partnered with Progressive Centre to host Putting Technology Work for Democracy, illuminates how Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook’s immense data pools to spread disinformation, without the knowledge of the people effected. As the former employee, Brittany Kaiser describes: “We bombarded them with ads on every platform you could imagine until they saw the world the way we wanted them to.” 

In hidden recordings, CA executive Alexander Nix describes the alarming “Do So” campaign in Trinidad & Tobago. Do So” allegedly run by Cambridge Analytica, to convince young, black voters to stay at home as a form of protest against the government. CA was, as former employee Christopher Wylie describes, “a full-service propaganda machine.”

The tactics, and by extension the data, were commandeered by a collection of billionaires and far right nationalist groups around the world. The same online targeting of voters, going over the heads of traditional media and catering to immaculately tracked profiles was perfected during the Leave campaign, and repeated in the United States. But Cambridge Analytica was always going to happen. It is the natural conclusion of our Big Tech economy, an inevitable consequence of the broken data market.  

Cambridge Analytica has an interest to promote their effectiveness.They want to impress clients and win contracts. By using extravagant words- psychographics and micro-targeting- they aim to make their tactics appear inaccessible, their services indispensable. But as The Great Hack proves, it is far too easy to exploit the data economy, and we still don’t know to what extent.

Regular users of Facebook, and other social media platforms, do not know what information they have given up, let alone where it is being used, as is evidenced by David Carroll’s struggle to retrieve his data from Cambridge Analytica. We have no idea of the data we are leaving behind. Not of the content, nor of the scale.  

Ben Scott, Director of Policy at Luminate, has argued Facebook, Google and other social media giants have eroded our democracy- creating divides in the content we see, and allowing disinformation to spread.

The solutions are there; Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, in partnership with Progressive Centre has called for radical action to fix our distorted digital market. Watson recommends a duty of care for technology companies, making them responsible for the content they host. He has reiterated the case, made in the documentary, that we need to know what data companies hold on us, and have a say in how it is used. Finally, we need to stop monopolies performing, by stopping mergers of large data pools.

Watson is not alone in calling for action. Will Perrin, a former government technology advisor, has seconded his call for a duty of care for technology companies. Director of Technology at The German Marshall Fund, Karen Kornbluh, advised that international co-operation would be needed to restrict the rise of white nationalism through social media.

No single policy will solve the problem in our digital economy. Nor will the focusing on individual bad actors like Cambridge Analytica. The Great Hack has taught us the lessons of the past, now we need to act so that they never happen again.


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