Facebook’s great privacy scandal on Netflix


SAN FRANCISCO — A filmmaker behind a documentary about the biggest privacy scandal to shake up Facebook is imploring the tech industry — and Facebook users — to do some soul-searching.

“Silicon Valley has to ask itself what is its responsibility to an open society,” said Karim Amer during a Q&A after a special screening of “The Great Hack” in San Francisco this week.

The documentary, a Netflix original that was shown at Sundance in January and will be available globally on the streaming service and in select theaters July 24, explores the mess that exposed the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, a political data consulting firm used by President Donald Trump’s campaign, without their consent.

The film was directed by Amer and Jehane Noujaim, who also made “The Square,” the Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary about the social media-aided revolution in Egypt that led to the fall of its president, Hosni Mubarak.

Noujaim said that after “The Square,” the filmmakers started looking into the massive Sony hack in 2014. Then they decided what was happening with Facebook was the bigger story.

“The Great Hack” follows the privacy scandal through two main characters, plus Carole Cadwalladr, the reporter for the Observer/Guardian who reported about Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit movement in Britain before the privacy scandal broke wide open last year in relation to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design in New York, sued Cambridge Analytica to try to find out all the information it had about him. Spoiler alert: Cambridge Analytica shut down last year, and Carroll may never know.

The most compelling character in the film is Brittany Kaiser, a former campaign worker for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign who crossed parties to work as business development director at Cambridge Analytica, which was backed by big Republican donors the Mercer family and co-founded by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. Kaiser — who now helps inform lawmakers about data-related issues after doing some soul-searching of her own — had to testify before British lawmakers and was questioned by Robert Mueller in the U.S. investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. elections.

The stories of Carroll and Kaiser hammer home the point that in the age of the smartphone and social media, many of us are leaking personal data and may not know or care to know just what information is out there, how much, who has it and what they’re doing with it. Kaiser called data “the most valuable asset on Earth.”

In the case of Cambridge Analytica getting ahold of Facebook users’ personal information through a personality-quiz app circulated by a former Cambridge University professor, Kaiser said the company focused on changing the minds of “persuadables,” or people who hadn’t yet made up their minds about elections. Based on what it knew about them — it claimed to have 5,000 data points on each user — Cambridge Analytica targeted individuals on Facebook with false information, memes, propaganda and what Kaiser called “weapons-grade tactics.”

The film shows that among the success stories Cambridge Analytica bragged about were boosting Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and helping to eventually elect Trump, plus helping elect leaders in other nations. Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO, Alexander Nix, was also caught on video by a British television news station talking about entrapment of politicians using bribes and sex workers.

The release of the documentary comes as the United States prepares for another presidential election. Facebook and other tech giants — and the top executives who have had to testify before U.S. lawmakers — have touted changes they’ve made to try to avoid further election interference.

At the Q&A after the Monday night screening, Amer also addressed a question to consumers and users of the internet and social media: “How much of ourselves have we given up?”

“No one wants to admit they’re persuadable,” he added. “We want to believe ‘I have free will.’ ”

Noujaim said their film is important because it concerns “the future of independence of thought.”