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What The Great Hack tells us about data privacy

  • After the recent FaceApp debate comes a documentary that explores the million-dollar question
  • What happens to our online data? -While The Great Hack misses the point, it does serve as a much-needed reminder of the need for user-data privacy

David Carroll in a still from the documentary.
David Carroll in a still from the documentary.

The first step for every smartphone user installing a new app is permissions. Why does a photo-editing app need access to your contacts or why does a video streaming service need access to your microphone?

These are, of course, just some examples of confounding app permissions. There are plenty of instances that relate to your camera, location, phone, SMS, storage and microphone (is your phone always listening?).

A poster of ‘The Great Hack
A poster of ‘The Great Hack

The more important question is: What happens to your data? Where does the information from our online activities (social media interactions, engagement, web searches, etc.) go? These questions, and others, fuel the recent Netflix documentary The Great Hack, which follows an American professor of digital media and app development who challenges the now defunct British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, using the European data protection law, to give up his voter profile created for the 2016 US presidential election. What follows is a thorough look at the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and the mind-bending reach of Big Data and psychographics.

One of the most riveting remarks by Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee and a central figure in the documentary, reiterates how the value of data has surpassed oil in value. “Data is the most valuable asset on Earth," she says in the almost 2-hour documentary, which becomes more about the characters on screen than the fate of the valuable personal data in question.

There is continued focus on Kaiser; David Carroll, the American professor; Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica; journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who reported extensively on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal; Julian Wheatland, former chief financial officer and chief operating officer of Cambridge Analytica; and Christopher Wylie, a data scientist and another Cambridge Analytica whistleblower.

But what exactly did those 5,000 data points—which Cambridge Analytica claimed to have on millions of individual American voters, including Carroll—comprise? As the documentary goes on to show, the company declared bankruptcy in May 2018 and shut shop in order to avoid handing over any evidence or records to the investigating authorities.

While there are no concrete figures or reports to support Kaiser’s “data as the most valuable asset" claim—or the fact that digital data collection and mining is a trillion-dollar business—there are some parts of the documentary that should concern everyone. Take facial recognition and information warfare, for instance.

FaceApp, which went viral recently
FaceApp, which went viral recently

A recent example of how our information—in this case, biometric data—can be used against us was evident in the recent debate on the photo-altering FaceApp, which went viral recently thanks to the “FaceApp Challenge" (the app uses Artificial Intelligence, or AI, to create an image of what you might look like in the years to come). There was not only lack of clarity about what happened to user selfies once they selected them for alteration, but also questions about the app’s user-privacy agreement. The ensuing panic among users abated only after the app’s founder released statements that user photographs were not being stored in servers in Russia but on the cloud, where most of the photographs were processed. “We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing. We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud," said a statement from the company in July.

Facial recognition is the future of tech. It is being used everywhere, from airports to law enforcement. For instance, face-reading AI developed by the UK-based startup Facesoft can almost accurately tell the police when suspects are hiding something. According to a Bloomberg report, Facesoft has built a database of 300 million images of faces, “some of which have been created by an AI system modelled on the human brain". The system can identify an array of emotions—anger, fear or surprise—based on micro-expressions which are often invisible to the casual observer, the report adds. Such examples only serve to reinforce the fact that facial (or any biometric) data is extremely sensitive.

While the “FaceApp Challenge" was a reminder of how facial data could potentially be misused, an aspect highlighted in The Great Hack is information warfare.

At the beginning of the documentary, Carroll asks a class full of students: “Who has seen an advertisement that has convinced you that your microphone is listening to your conversations?" The entire class raises a hand in agreement—a small example of how your data and information go out in the internet but come back to you in the form of targeted messaging and advertising.

In fact, Cambridge Analytica, as the documentary shows, gathered individual user data through a personality test that gave Facebook users an OCEAN score—it calculated the user’s performance based on Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. The political consultancy then used an algorithm to identify voters who were dubbed “persuadables"—people who could be pushed towards or away from an election candidate with the help of targeted messaging and information dissemination.

While The Great Hack starts with much encouragement, it misses the point—we never get to know what happened to Carroll’s data. But it does serve as a much-needed reminder of the need for user-data privacy and the possibility of manipulation using our own data.



AgingBooth is dubbed as a face-ageing machine. The app works without an internet connection and across all iOS devices and Android.


Oldify runs on iPhone and Android and uses your front-facing camera to show how you would look in the future. The app lets users add anything from 20-100 years to their images, or manually enter an age. The app also supports animations and video recording.


MSQRD lets users record selfie animations and share them on social networks or through messenger apps. The app’s USP is its live filters—everything from a panda, a gruesome zombie to a straight face swap with your friends. MSQRD runs on both Android and iOS.


Genies is an out-of-the-box idea that lets users create a “Genie clone" that mirrors the mannerisms of your human self. The app also lets you use this Genie avatar on other platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. According to its official website, users can choose from up to a million clothing and facial options to create these avatars.

(User discretion is advised to protect personal data)

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