Bannon: I don't recall buying Facebook data

Ex-White House chief strategist had worked for political consultancy linked to scandal

WASHINGTON • Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon said he does not remember purchasing personal information from Facebook while working for political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.

"I didn't even know anything about the Facebook mining," he told reporters following his appearance at the Financial Times' Future Of News conference in New York on Thursday afternoon.

In an on-stage interview, Mr Bannon was quizzed by Financial Times editor Lionel Barber.

Mr Bannon joked that the name Cambridge Analytica was "a stroke of genius", and said: "I helped put the company together."

He said he would "rather not" talk about Mr Alexander Nix, who was suspended as chief executive of Cambridge Analytica on Tuesday after he was caught on tape boasting to British undercover reporters about offering fake stings and honey traps to clients wishing to discredit their political opponents in elections.

Mr Bannon's comments on Thursday marked the first time he spoke publicly about the scandal over the misuse of Facebook data. It broke over the weekend after the New York Times and Britain's Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed data on 50 million Facebook users to build profiles on American voters that were later used to help elect Mr Donald Trump as US President in 2016.

It is one of the tech giant's biggest ever data breaches, and the data gleaned was used to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have both denied wrongdoing.

DATA FOR SALE

That Facebook data, by the way, is for sale all over the world.

MR STEVE BANNON, when quizzed about the Facebook scandal by CNN.

Former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower who broke the scandal, said it was Mr Bannon who oversaw Cambridge Analytica's early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data. Mr Wylie told the Washington Post that Mr Bannon - who was the company's vice-president from June 2014 to August 2016 - was deeply involved in the company's strategy and approved spending nearly US$1 million (S$1.3 million) to acquire data, including Facebook profiles, in 2014.

"We had to get Bannon to approve everything at this point. Bannon was Alexander Nix's boss," said Mr Wylie, who was Cambridge Analytica's research director. He left the company before it joined the Trump campaign. "Alexander Nix didn't have the authority to spend that much money without approval," said Mr Wylie.

But Mr Bannon tried to distance himself from the scandal on Thursday. When asked by CNN if he knew the company was using personal information from Facebook, Mr Bannon said: "That Facebook data, by the way, is for sale all over the world."

Turning to the conference audience, he added: "You're all serfs. Well-paid serfs, but still serfs... The data is all out there, they take your stuff for free and monetise it for huge margins, they take over your life."

What happened there, Mr Bannon said, is between Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and "the professor" - meaning Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who reportedly shared data harvested from his psychological test Facebook app with Cambridge Analytica.

Mr Bannon blamed any "dirty tricks" on Cambridge Analytica's parent company, SCL, which he described as "the British guys, old Etonians and guys from Oxford and Cambridge", reported The Guardian newspaper.

The Washington Post reported that Mr Bannon helped launch Cambridge Analytica in 2013 with the financial backing of the wealthy Mercer family as part of a broader effort to create a populist power base.

Mr Bannon, who fell out with Mr Trump earlier this year, also pushed back on the idea that Cambridge Analytica won the election for Mr Trump, reported CNBC News. "Here's what won it for Trump: economic nationalism" and talking in plain language to the American people, Mr Bannon said on Thursday.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2018, with the headline 'Bannon: I don't recall buying Facebook data'. Print Edition | Subscribe