Trump’s ex-chief strategist says he ‘helped put the company together’, but didn’t know about data harvested from Facebook
Steve Bannon tried to distance himself from the Cambridge Analytica scandal on Thursday, claiming: “I didn’t even know anything about the Facebook mining.”
Bannon is a former vice-president and board member of the political consultancy, which he agreed he “put together”. He claimed at conference in New York that neither he nor Cambridge Analytica had anything to do with “dirty tricks” in the use of information harvested from Facebook to make computer models to sway elections.
Besides, he said, “Facebook data is for sale all over the world.”
Bannon – Donald Trump’s former chief strategist – later said outside the conference room that he “did not remember” being part of any scheme to buy data that came from Facebook and divert it to use for election propaganda, as the Observer revealed last weekend.
He 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”.
And he denied that his former benefactor, US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who co-owns Cambridge Analytica, had any financial links to SCL. Mercer was also a major donor to Trump’s election campaign.
It was Bannon’s first public appearance and statement since the explosive reports by the Observer and the Guardian, sister publications, last weekend, that the personal data of about 50 million Americans had been harvested and improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.
The international data analytics operation, which worked with Trump’s election team, scraped millions of Facebook profiles of US voters and information about their social media friends, then used them for political propaganda.
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.
The tech firm used personal information in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements, tech whistleblower and former employee Christopher Wylie told the Observer.
“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on,” Wylie said.
Cambridge Analytica has denied Wylie’s claims, and said that it had deleted all of the Facebook data once it became aware of how it had been obtained.
Bannon was speaking in New York on Thursday afternoon, at a conference organized by the Financial Times called The Future of News. In an on-stage interview, Bannon was quizzed by Lionel Barber, the editor of the FT.
He 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 Alexander Nix, who was suspended as the 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.
A Cambridge Analytica spokesman said before Nix’s suspension: “We entirely refute any allegation that Cambridge Analytica or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes, or so-called ‘honey-traps’ for any purpose whatsoever … We routinely undertake conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions.”
But Bannon denied there was any scandal involving companies acquiring people’s personal information from Facebook and using it for other purposes.
“It’s just about the cost of it. It’s bought and sold every day, it’s just a marketplace,” he said, adding: “I didn’t even know about the Facebook mining, that’s Facebook’s business … They went to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and told him all about the power of personal data.”
Bannon turned to the conference audience and said: “You’re all serfs. Well paid serfs, but still serfs … The data is all out there, they [Facebook] take your stuff for free and monetize it for huge margins, they take over your life.”
When Barber asked Bannon about dirty tricks by Cambridge Analytica, Bannon said: “That’s SCL [the parent company]. Not a penny of Robert Mercer’s money went into SCL, that’s all staffed by British guys from Oxford and Cambridge. CA is the data scientists – the Guardian and the Observer tell you that in about the 10th paragraph.”
Bannon clashed with the president over the strategic direction of the Trump administration, which Bannon felt was veering away from his hard-right agenda, and he was ousted from the White House last summer.
On Wednesday, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted the company made mistakes and apologized for a “breach of trust” with users of the social network.
Cambridge Analytica is now the subject of US special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probing of the company’s role in Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign.