‘The Great Hack’: Manipulating people with their own data

“The Great Hack” tells the story of British data-driven political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. (Supplied)
Updated 29 July 2019

‘The Great Hack’: Manipulating people with their own data

CHENNAI: One of the greatest concerns of this century is the growing threat to privacy. They may not admit it, but many countries — not just those run by dictatorial regimes — are now making it their business to snoop into individuals’ lives. “The Great Hack,” now streaming on Netflix, brilliantly documents this in feature length.

Made by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim (known for “Control Room” and “The Square,” which fetched an Academy nod), “The Great Hack” tells the story of British data-driven political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which used the Facebook data of millions of users to push Brexit and help Donald Trump win the US presidential election.

The documentary is no less thrilling than a political spy story with unforgettable characters. The company got hold of personal messages, photographs and more to shortlist those who were seen as “persuadable,” and they were bombarded with communication to nudge them toward Trump and Brexit. The movie calls this a psychological war.

“The Great Hack” begins with an American professor, David Carroll, who decides after it was revealed that Facebook data were being misused that he will ask Cambridge Analytica to hand over his personal information.

The take on Brittany Kaiser is even more gripping. An ex-intern who worked for former US President Barack Obama, she landed a job with Cambridge Analytica writing contracts for Trump and helping Brexit deals.

Pink-haired whistleblower Christopher Wylie makes up the trio that shook the world out of its Facebook fallacy. 

Will “The Great Hack” lead to a mass exodus from Facebook? Hardly, one would think, because people are so besotted with sharing their most personal moments on the platform that they ignore how vulnerable they can be.

And mobile phones, which just about everybody uses today, often track their users’ every move.

But it is time to seriously ponder how we are naively bartering away our precious privacy for self-promotion among our friends, real and not so real.

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

Updated 19 August 2019

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

  • Early-warning system lets farmers know when to protect their crops from fruit flies
  • Mobile app tells them the best time to spray pesticides to halt their advance

DUBAI: An award-winning startup led by two female Lebanese engineers has created an automated early-warning system that allows Middle East farmers to protect their crops against the Mediterranean fruit fly, one of the world’s most destructive pests.

Fruit flies can devastate entire harvests and have infested over 300 types of vegetables, fruits and nuts globally, causing financial ruin to countless farmers in the Arab world.

However, an ingenious system designed by Nisrine El Turky, a computer engineer and university professor, and Christina Chaccour, an electrical engineer, will tell farmers via text messages and mobile app of the best time to spray pesticides to halt the pests’ advance.

“Many Lebanese farmers weren’t able to export apples because the quality of their produce wasn’t good enough,” said El Turky, co-founder of IO Tree.

“So many I met were desperate to sell a crate of apples for $2 (SR7.50), which is nothing. I wanted to help the sector by better integrating technology.”

Farmers were found spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies. (Shutterstock)

She began by investigating the difficulties that farmers faced, attending workshops and seminars, and visiting farms. She found the main problem was that farmers were spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies.

“I found a way that could reduce the use of pesticides and increase production.”

El Turky began working on the IO Tree concept in February 2018 and swiftly built a working prototype, which she showed to Chaccour, who promptly joined the company as a co-founder.

IO Tree’s technology is being tested on farms in Lebanon and the Netherlands. There are two prototype machines — one for indoor use and another for outdoor. The machines can be placed in an orchard, field or greenhouse.

“We need to ensure that the prototype functions in all conditions. Outdoors, there is sun, dust, rain and other weather factors that could disrupt its operation,” said El Turky, who still works up to 10 hours a week as a lecturer at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University.

Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machine’s sensors monitor indicators such as temperature and moisture, as well as studying plant stress.

The system can detect and identify pests, providing data on the likely scale of an imminent pest invasion and the best action the farmer should take to combat it. Information is conveyed to the farmer via IO Tree’s app.

“If you’re using pesticides, our app will tell you the best pesticide to use to tackle that problem, the quantity you need and when to spray.”

IO Tree’s sensors use machine learning to measure plant stress. (Supplied photo)

EL Turky said her technology had shown over 90 percent accuracy in identifying medflies.

“Machine learning means that every day the system becomes more accurate,” she said.

“We’re also working on identifying other pests, but medfly is our main target. Once medflies arrive at a farm, they will eat everything.”

IO Tree will enable farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing environmental damage, while produce will be in better condition and can command a higher sales price.

“By using fewer pesticides, farmers will be better able to preserve biodiversity: Spraying kills a lot more insects than just pests,” she said. IO Tree has initially targeted all types of fruit trees, plus tomatoes and cucumbers, and the product will be launched commercially in September.

“We’re aiming at farmers directly,” said El Turky.

IO Tree’s services will be sold via subscription. After a farmer signs up for one year initially, the company will install its machines at the farm. The number of machines required per acre depends on crop type, crop yield, land topography and other factors.

The company’s initial target market is the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, though it also plans to expand to Europe and eventually worldwide.

The product’s potential has helped IO Tree win a string of startup competitions. It was selected to represent Lebanon GSVC 2019 (Global Social Venture Competition) at the University of California, Berkeley.

IO Tree also joined Lebanon’s Agrytech accelerator, which provided $44,000 in funding, and schooled the fledgling entrepreneurs in how to create and manage a startup.


• The Middle East Exchange is one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Global Initiatives that was launched to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai in the field of humanitarian and global development, to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. The initiative offers the press a series of articles on issues affecting Arab societies.