Monday, July 18, 2022

The Great Hack Reveals the Vulnerability of Democracy

Many of us have written about Donald Trump's election campaigns implying there was something wrong.  Many factors were involved, but a trend that threatens democracy became more obvious.  "The Great Hack" (2019) uncovers a little bit.  There are forces that hope you ignore this film, but it needs to have an impact to help preserve some pretense of democracy.  See it yourself on Netflix.

 As a daily user of Facebook it was alarming to realize they have been collecting data that can be used against my best interests.  They are able to identify demographic information as well as attitudes/opinions.  We already notice that ads seem to exploit our interest revealed on Facebook.  Cambridge Analytica was able to get data from Facebook.   One insider pointed out that Cambridge Analytica identified "persuadables" and directed their efforts to "swing states" to be most effective.  They identified issues that could tip a voter's choice and developed material that would address them.  Voters claim they are not affected, but in reality the numbers suggest otherwise.

In targeting potential voters they were able to identify blacks likely to vote against Trump and instead of trying to convert them, put them in a deterrence file and developed strategies to discourage them from voting.

We all think we have a mind of our own, but many of life's decisions are really complicated.  A good salesman narrows down the decision making factors, but they are seldom as well armed as today's sophisticated data gatherers.

On this side of the Atlantic we are aware of the divided American electorate, but Cambridge Analytical earned its credentials in Europe.  Conflicting views on their influence with Brexit, but they worked for the exit.

Hard hitting documentaries require some talented people.  Here are just a few involved with "The Great Hack."

Karim Amer was a director, a writer and a producer.  His film credits include "The Square" (2013) which was the first Egyptian film to get an Oscar nomination. He had teamed up with Angelina Jolie for "The Breadwinner" (2017) which also was Oscar nominated.  Check

His co-director and wife, Jehane Nougaim was born in Cairo and attended Harvard.  Her film credits include "Control Room" (2204).  When she was producing "The Square" she met her husband, Karim Amer who became the co-producer.  Like her husband, Jehane also wrote, directed and produced films.

Key characters in the film include:

David Carroll was an associate professor of media design in New York who became alarmed when he learned his voter profile was held by an English firm, Cambridge Analytica.  Because English law gave some protection regarding personal data he sued and his efforts resulted in the only criminal conviction against Cambridge Analytica which went out of business.

Brittany Kaiser, an American who had worked on the Barrack Obama's 2007 election campaign and also with Amnesty.  She became a business manager connected to Cambridge Analytica in Britain. who fled to Thailand when the scandal broke.  She eventually testified in the United Kingdom regarding Brexit and also with the Mueller Investigation in the United States.  She has become a campaigner for data protection and feels that Facebook should ban political advertising.

Christopher Wylie was a whistleblower.  He was born in Canada and at a young age worked under contract with Michael Ignatieff and later worked on the Barrack Obama 2007 campaign.  He went to the London School of Economics.  He worked at Cambridge Analytica and became disillusioned ,turning over  documents to the Guardian newspaper.   "You shouldn't win by cheating."  He compared election cheating to Olympic doping, once caught you are out.

Paul-Oliver Dehaye, a Belgian mathematician was another whistleblower.  He has become an advocate for data protection. 

Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist for the Guardian.  Had written books, but got into journalism with an interest in technology.  An early interview was with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.  She was concerned over what she called "the right wing fake news ecosystem."  She broke the story of Cambridge Analytica's involvement with political issues.  She has given a TED talk and advocated for data protection.

There are many films and publications that are alerting the public to the insidious data gathering that is increasingly prevalent in society.  We need to protect ourselves.  Admittedly, like most I am not an expert on data mining, but am conscious more sophisticated marketers are trying to influence me and others.

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