The most talked about film in the tech world right now is probably The Great Hack. The Netflix documentary uncovers the dark world of data exploitation, following the personal journeys of key players on different sides of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal. One of the key players in The Great Hack, vital in uncovering one of the most important stories in tech, is data expert, activist, mathematician, and entrepreneur, Paul-Olivier Dehaye. In the latest episode of the GoodTech Vidcast, we had the pleasure of talking to Paul-Olivier about his involvement in The Great Hack, how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s algorithms to operate, and how we are in need of a strong community to take on the BigTech giants. Watch the full episode on our YouTube channel, or read the recap below.

Journey From Curiosity to Action

Paul-Olivier’s interest in data grew overtime. He was working on his PhD in Silicon Valley when he started taking notice of the tools that were being built around him, and the social dynamics that changed as a consequence. When the Snowden affair escalated, it was revealed on a large scale what government surveillance could be, but Paul-Olivier noticed there was a lack of awareness on what corporate surveillance could be. “In December 2015, I saw something about Cambridge Analytica, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to reach a much larger number of people around these topics,” he tells us. “I was getting unpleasant feelings about corporate surveillance and all this data that is being vacuumed by private companies, and at some point my profession sort of collided with this hobby.”

When Paul-Olivier started talking to his colleagues, telling them to pay attention, no one showed an interest. “So I did something unexpected,” he says. “I decided to offer a course on a platform about data practices and business models. It gave me a clean break … to leave academia and start working fully on these topics.” Paul-Olivier started exploring what rights individuals had, and created a strategy for people to exercise their rights more deeply. He took on various companies – Facebook and Tinder being two of them.

“Privacy was thought of as a purely individual matter. What the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed was that it goes beyond that. It goes into a question about power,” Paul-Olivier says. “It shifts the question from a question on autonomy – a question about if you expose yourself if you give up your privacy, and how much autonomy you lose – and it goes into a question about if governments don’t protect data of their citizens, and how much that affects their sovereignty. That changes huge amounts of the dynamics of fixing the problems. It changes the responsibility. It’s the same shift as taking care of the health of your kids, or your kids going to a school where none of the other kids are vaccinated. It changes the dynamic of obligations, and on the state to protect others.”

Paul-Olivier’s Involvement in The Great Hack

Paul-Olivier had two completely different strands of involvement in The Great Hack. The first strand was journalistic. Paul-Olivier was a concerned citizen who started investigating a company (Cambridge Analytica) that he’d read about. He started helping hundreds of journalists to cover a story. He says, “I felt like I had more background than the average person, and I wanted to dig deeper. I was surprised no one was following up, so I took it upon myself to do that.”

Paul-Olivier’s second involvement in The Great Hack was more so as an activist. “What you didn’t know is what feedback mechanisms Facebook had. You can’t assess the impact from the outside, unless you have informed citizens using their individual rights by going and digging for this data. So, I started filing requests for access to specific data points that Facebook had, and that I was entitled to. I started digging for this to uncover what I thought were essential data points to better understand how information flowed to me,” he says. 

Paul-Olivier also thought this could be done for Cambridge Analytica, but he wasn’t affected by it since he didn’t live in the UK or the US. Instead, he started looking for other people who were willing to engage. He says, “I reached out to 10-15 different people. Academics, educators, journalists and so on. David Carroll was one of them, and from there David just took it upon himself. A part of The Great Hack follows him and his journey.”

So, what is going to happen post The Great Hack? Will the Netflix documentary make a difference? Paul-Olivier says, “If you just see it as a movie I don’t think it will have a lasting impact. If you see it as a first learning object in a series of learning activities, one after the other, where you watch the movie and then you do something, and progressively you get more empowered, then yes – I think it can have an impact. It’s like the entrance of a funnel.”

The Math behind the Scandal

We ask Paul-Olivier to explain the math behind how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to operate. First, he tells us that Facebook is looking for signals to try to detect what people are interested in, and it’s acting based on that to recommend content. In a flood of content that might be public around you, it’ll decide to show you only a very tiny fraction of it, because you’ve been sending out certain signals. What happens then is that companies try to understand what this engagement is like, and then progressively shift Facebook’s algorithms to things that can benefit them.

“If the goal is to discourage some Hillary Clinton supporters to vote, you should look for specific types of commenters on Hillary Clinton’s posts,” Paul-Olivier tells us. “You should look for people who might be supportive, but are also critical of her stance on a particular issue. They are supportive, but not fully committed. Then you create a bunch of accounts that are based on what these people are like. You mimic them, and you make them follow specific pages that you control. The result of all of this is that the recommendation system of Facebook will encourage the actual voters that you are targeting, to follow the pages you control. These pages might be specifically designed to split the electorate on issues. What happens is that you shift the conversation for a particular subset of supporters against Clinton, and you leverage Facebook algorithms to get amplification. You convince these people to not show up and vote. They would never imagine themselves not voting for Trump, but they could imagine not voting for Clinton. This would be a way for a third part to help one candidate over the other, and to seed information into Facebook’s databases that would actually go against one specific candidate, and help the other.”

When talking about Cambridge Analytica, the conversation can easily shift into a conversation about politics. We ask Paul-Olivier if, in his eyes, The Great Hack is politically biased. He tells us that it’s political in the sense that it’s a question about the distribution of power. “People both left and right, are stuck in their own way of splitting the political arena into two. But, they should eventually see that this is a deeper issue. It’s an issue about their own capacity to define the political process and what should be the future of their country. It’s a question of sovereignty.” He also tells us that an often heard argument is that the Cambridge Analytica scandal would never have been covered if Trump had lost the presidential election of 2016. “That is not quite true,” he says. “It was decided before the election that it was going to be covered, but it would certainly not have blown up as it has, if Trump lost. So yes, it became a scandal because Trump won, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong, or dangerous, or problematic. It only encourages us to look back at the Obama election and think ‘why did we miss anticipating the risk?’ Why didn’t we look at the risks? We should learn that when we see new technologies we should not just have an optimistic look about them. We should cherish those who have a critical eye. There were some people that were critical of Obama needing those tools to get elected, and maybe we should’ve listened more to those people at the time.”

The Future of Data

It’s been said that Data has surpassed oil as the most valuable asset on Earth. We ask Paul-Olivier what he thinks of this statement. “It’s a dirty business to produce oil, but it’s not an easy solution to switch to another energy source. It’s different for a digital product. AdTech is a dirty business as well. What’s missing is an ecosystem of business models around the alternatives. What’s needed is a change of cultural perception of surveillance-based services, and this is going to come as people realize,” Paul-Olivier says.

When asked about what should be done in the future, Paul-Olivier says he’d like to see a community of people who are empowered around their data and feel like they understand their individual rights. “I’d like to see people who start to actively exercise their rights with respect to platforms like Facebook, and Twitter, and so on, to better understand how information flows to them. To know what is reliable, and what is not. I absolutely don’t believe in the statement that users will never be interested in this. By having a broad involvement around understanding the digital world around us, I think we are capable as a society to take those giants to account. Over the past ten to 20 years, we’ve accepted some sort of obscurantism from those platforms. We’ve accepted that they should operate above the law or outside of any realm of questioning, and we’ve seen how far that can lead in terms of concentration of power and accountability, and I think this is the moment to change it.”

Lastly, we ask Paul-Olivier to tell us about the non-profit he started, personaldata.io. He says, “It’s really about building coalitions around data champions like David Carroll. People who really want to create change. On forum.personaldata.io we can start building this community of people to exercise our rights. We should build meaning about our environment together. We should have collective dynamics around understanding our digital environment. That will definitely make us a lot stronger.”

Want to see more of GoodTech? Watch it LIVE every other Thursday at 6pmCEST, or watch previous recordings on our Youtube channel. GoodTech is also available as a podcast on any podcast platform you use.