From London to Moscow to Brussels, the ongoing debate surrounding Brexit — and the forces backing Britain’s departure from the European Union — has reached many different locales.
Now, it seems we can add Mississippi to the list.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year has roped both the state and its Republican governor into lingering questions about how the “Leave” campaign accumulated voter data, as well as which laws may have been broken along the way. Namely, did Brexit backers illegally ship British citizens’ data overseas — and, if so, what were they planning on doing with it moving forward?
The lawsuit was filed by U.K. resident Kyle Taylor, a dual American-British national, and the Fair Vote Project, and alleges that a pair of British firms may have obtained social media users’ information and illegally sent that information to partners in Mississippi.
Earlier this year, Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of the much-maligned Cambridge Analytica firm testified before the British Parliament and said that during her time with Cambridge Analytica she had been “made aware” of another data company, known as Big Data Dolphins. That company was started by Eldon Insurance, owned by Arron Banks, the leading Brexit donor whose unreported contacts with Russian officials recently came to light following a series of published emails.
According to Kaiser, Big Data Dolphins “has reportedly worked with a data science team at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). If the Mississippi team has held or processed U.K. citizens’ data in the U.S., I believe that is likely to be a criminal offense; although it is for the empowered authorities to pursue any such question and secure the associated evidence.”
Both Big Data Dolphins and Eldon Insurance have denied that any data was ever transferred to the University of Mississippi, and the university has likewise denied any allegations. But Taylor, the plaintiff in the ongoing suit, has said he believes Kaiser’s suspicions will be borne out, and that the lawsuit will help confirm such allegations. He has asked the presiding judge to help prevent either company from destroying any related data.
As the Jackson Free Press reported, both Big Data Dolphins and Eldon Insurance are now being investigated by the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), concerning “the use of data and analytics methodology including the obtaining of personal information of U.K. citizens.” Earlier this month, the ICO published a letter noting that it has “reason to believe that much of this data evidence is held at the University of Mississippi.”
The men of Mississippi
The partnership to which Kaiser alluded — and that is now the subject of a lawsuit in Mississippi — stems from one of the stranger relationships that have developed over the past few years between trans-Atlantic populists. Despite having little official reason to build a relationship, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R-MS) and Brexit leader Nigel Farage have developed a friendly relationship since at least 2016.
— Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) February 27, 2017
The two apparently first started buddying up during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and have had numerous meetings in the time since. For good measure, Bryant was the one who invited Farage to Trump’s inauguration — and, according to the Free Press, even introduced Farage to Trump, “right here in Jackson.”
Farage apparently returned the favor, helping Bryant make the rounds with others helping fund the Brexit campaign, including Banks.
Andy over in the US this week with Gov. Bryant. & our good friends from Mississippi ! pic.twitter.com/Q4xFPFlIkt
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) January 12, 2017
— Arron Banks (@Arron_banks) November 2, 2017
After the Brexit vote, Bryant shepherded a proposed partnership between Eldon Insurance and the University of Mississippi to set up an “artificial intelligence team” in Oxford, Mississippi. As an April statement from Bryant’s office read, “Upon learning that Eldon Insurance was planning to begin a new research effort at the University of Scotland, Gov. Bryant suggested to Eldon leadership they should look into doing research at a Mississippi university.”
The Clarion-Ledger also reported that Bryant pitched the idea to Andrew Wigmore, another pro-Brexit figure whose unreported meetings with Russian officials were only reported last week following email revelations. (Wigmore, who at one point also served as director at Eldon, called allegations of data transfer a “litany of lies.”)
As emails later revealed, Banks requested that the Mississippi office “establish a Marketing focused [sic] AI office, with Data Scientists, Marketing Execs and a Psychologist working on projects to disrupt the market.” A lease was eventually signed earlier this year between Big Data Dolphins and the University of Mississippi Research Foundation, proposing to build a new office to help with data analysis. The foundation pledged $100,000 for the project. An additional $100,000 would come from the Mississippi Development Authority.
However, construction has yet to begin, and the official Leave.EU campaign recently tweeted a statement from Banks noting that the project is “still at the planning stage and has not commenced.”
The Remainers who make up @CommonsCMS continue their Witch Hunt.
"We believe the actions of the committee amount to collusion with a Pro-EU campaign group in order to create Fake News” pic.twitter.com/A3wDCGnaF9
— Leave.EU (@LeaveEUOfficial) June 8, 2018
While a number of questions remain, ranging from data transfer to why Mississippi was selected in the first place, one thing is certain: the proposed partnership would deal directly with material scraped from social media users.
As one email from an Eldon employee, which was recently made public, notes, “[Banks] would also like the team to acquire more sources of data and has mentioned that our plans to use software we have purchased… to scrape social media data (Facebook profiles of our customers for starters) would fit in well with what is expected from Mississippi.”