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The Great Hack: the dark side of data

Jul 31, 2019
The Great Hack: the dark side of data

Data is a priceless asset. It’s no longer something trawled over exclusively by nerds. For a creative marketing agency like OTB, data is essential to driving success. Without it we would be clueless about our target market, their spending habits and their desire for future products or campaigns. In many ways we’re heavily reliant on data and the insight it offers.   

If you’ve watched ‘The Great Hack’, which premiered on Netflix last Wednesday, you may feel as if you’ve been cast into an episode of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’. Unfortunately, this is far scarier as it’s our reality and not an imagined dystopian future.

“The reason why Facebook and Google are the most powerful companies in the world is because last year data surpassed oil in value” is a direct quote from the documentary’s main star and self-proclaimed whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser. Despite the lack of an existing metric to validate this claim, it’s incontrovertibly true that data is one of the most valuable assets on earth.

Nothing ‘new’ but alarming nonetheless

The documentary does extremely well to unpick the perils of social media and data without sounding like a tin-foil-hat-wearing paranoid fantasist. Although mistrust in the internet is nothing new, the feeling that you’re being watched or listened to is hard to ignore. Those targeted ads featuring a product you recently searched for feel more sinister than coincidental.

Through the testimonies of past employees and dogged journalists, we gain a sense of how far reaching this operation is. Cambridge Analytica, the company embroiled in the scandal, bought data from Facebook and used it to manipulate voters in the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. Yes, we’re used to be lied to and manipulated during political contests by newspapers, but this is a step above what we’re used to; it’s the sophisticated and more intrusive cousin of the newspaper.

It not only speaks to a vague fear that a certain demographic may or may not harbour, it infiltrates a seemingly innocuous social media platform to target us with individual stories specifically designed to fuel hatred. Cambridge Analytica claim to have over 5000 data touchpoints for every American voter; that’s 5000 indicators to what type of person they are; that’s 5000 potential triggers they can provoke to alter their thinking.

Protect your privacy online

The makers of the documentary, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, know more than most of the perils that data mining can bring. However, they do offer some hope and insist we’re not utterly powerless. They suggest the following tips to protect your privacy online:

  • Using the internet is essentially a trade-off for data, so if you can’t stop it you must demand more information on how that data is being used.
  • Removing yourself from all social media isn’t necessarily the answer. Be more vigilant of what you share online, review your privacy settings and elect politicians who take data privacy transparency seriously.

For the extremely wealthy and powerful, the common man and woman have always played the part of pawns in their game of chess. But because data has been weaponised these pawns are easier to manipulate and move in any direction they choose. It’s as if a perverse focus group has been conducted on us all without our consent and we’re not yet aware of what the results will be used for.

Are you aware of how your data is used? Are these revelations shocking, or do they represent an inevitable trade-off for using the internet free of charge? Tweet us @otbtweeter with your views on whether data rights should be considered fundamental human rights.


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