What does the information we unwittingly share on the Internet say about us? Elizabeth Woodward, a producer of the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, spent the last two years exploring this question. “Data is recordable human behavior, a road map of who you are—in many ways, it’s like your soul,” she says over afternoon espressos at her downtown Manhattan apartment.
Before starting work on The Great Hack, Woodward, who is in her mid-20s and grew up in New York City before attending Brown, worked on the documentaries Afterward (2018) and Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017), as well as the BBC mini-series Black Is the New Black. She says working as a film-and-television producer is like “being a Swiss Army knife—you have to pull out different skills at different times.” The Great Hack, which was short-listed for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, traces the legal case of David Carroll, a media-design professor at the New School in Manhattan, whose efforts to make sense of his own data portfolio take him into the heart of the 2018 Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The film features interviews with key witnesses and others involved in the case: Carole Cadwalladr, the investigative reporter who exposed the scandal; the whistleblower Christopher Wylie; and Brittany Kaiser—the film’s enigmatic bad girl gone good with whom Woodward worked a lot. A former business-development director for Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser turned on her ex-colleagues after the scandal. How did they get the interviewees to comply? The film’s creators, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, known for their daring investigative approach to documentary filmmaking, prompted Woodward and her fellow producers to sometimes push for the impossible: “You … go sit in front of their office every day until they agree to talk to you,” Woodward recalls learning from the filmmakers.
The movie’s exceptional timing came by chance: On the same day that The Great Hack was released, on July 24, 2019, Robert Mueller testified in front of Congress, Boris Johnson became prime minister, and the Federal Trade Commission sued Cambridge Analytica. Here were three headlining news stories tied to the case, and The Great Hack made sense of the scandal, which few at the time understood. “It helped give these issues a vernacular language … to make this invisible world visible,” Woodward says. “We’ve had screenings all over the world, from the U.K. Parliament to Congress [in Washington, D.C.] … There’s a picture of a university class watching it in a mountain town in India.”
“The film has helped people understand what issues are at stake and talk about them,” she continues. “Activists have been shouting from the rooftops for a long time, but nobody was listening.” I ask Woodward, who is clearly passionate about the issue, what privacy means to her. “Someone told me there’s two different notions of privacy. One is to choose the way that you present yourself to the world, and the other is the ability to keep secrets.” She pauses for a moment. “I think it’s somewhere between those two things. But it means something different to everyone.” —Elena Clavarino