Why Brexit bankroller Arron Banks launched a data firm in Oxford, Mississippi

Published 6:48 am Thursday, April 19, 2018

Brexit bankroller Arron Banks’ ties to the University of Mississippi were called into question this week regarding whether university data scientists worked with Banks’ firm, Big Data Dolphins, to access personal data from the United Kingdom.

Banks is at the center of multiple investigations in the U.K. regarding the source of his millions in Brexit (“British exit”) campaign donations, along with possible breaches of the Data Protection Act. The relationship between the campaign and Banks’ companies is also under investigation, fueling testimony this week from a former Cambridge Analytica executive who claims “misuse of data was rife” among Banks’ campaigns and businesses.

Brittany Kaiser testified before British Parliament this week regarding consulting firm Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with Leave.EU, a Brexit campaigning organization Banks co-founded in 2015. Kaiser said she worked with Banks and his associate Andy Wigmore developing parallel proposals for Leave.EU, the U.K. Independence Party and Banks’ insurance firm, Eldon Insurance.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Citing an example when she observed staffers at Leave.EU’s call center using Eldon Insurance data, Kaiser accused the organization of potentially misusing personal data for political gain.

“If the personal data of U.K. citizens who just wanted to buy car insurance was used by GoSkippy and Eldon Insurance for political purposes, as may have been the case, people clearly did not opt-in for their data to be used in this way by Leave.EU,” Kaiser said.

After months of consultation, Kaiser claims Banks didn’t pay for the first phase of services, eventually cutting ties with Cambridge Analytica and founding Big Data Dolphins with Wigmore shortly after.

“Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore have told multiple individuals that they took my proposal and copied it and they created their own Cambridge Analytica, which they called Big Data Dolphins in partnership with the data science department at the University of Mississippi,” Kaiser said. “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.”

University officials issued a swift denial that it had received any data from the firm, later clarifying that Banks’ only association with the university involves an unoccupied space leased to Eldon Insurance in February 2018 at UM’s Insight Park—an on-campus business incubator with access to university research and other resources.

It’s a standard response from a university indirectly tied to a man under investigation for political corruption, but it leaves unanswered questions with broader implications:

What is Big Data Dolphins, or what is it supposed to be, and why would Banks—who rose to global prominence as part of right-winger Nigel Farage’s entourage of self-proclaimed Brexit “bad boys”—pursue a big data venture in Oxford, Mississippi?

Brexit meets Bryant

Hours after President Donald Trump officially secured the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, Nigel Farage—only a month removed from Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union—ended up at his hotel bar having drinks with Wigmore. A chance encounter with members of Mississippi’s delegation and Gov. Phil Bryant’s aide John Bartley Boykin led to an invitation for Farage to visit Mississippi that summer to meet Bryant.

“They say, ‘Oh, Governor Phil Bryant just loves you, Nigel! He watches all your videos,’” Farage told the New Yorker in 2016. “The idea of a trip to Mississippi? Rather. Absolutely.”

Banks accompanied Farage to Mississippi the following month, divulging details of the trip’s significance in his book “The Bad Boys of Brexit,” which frames his perspective of the E.U. referendum as more of an extravagant boys-club bender than a political campaign.

Take Banks’ account of a night at the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion, for example, which channels the spirit of a Hunter S. Thompson essay mingled with the narrative prowess of a college freshman describing a frat party:

In real old-school style, the ladies said goodnight and the men went into the converted garage outside, which was full of motorbikes, old Chevy cars, comfy chairs, a full bar and the best tobacco the South could offer.

Banks’ book also details how Farage’s visit collided with a Trump rally in Jackson that culminated in the two sharing the stage for the first time as political allies.

“If I was an American citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me,” Farage said, garnering booming cheers from the audience. “Anything is possible if enough American people stand up against the establishment.”

It was clear in the months following Farage’s Mississippi meet-and-greet that Gov. Bryant had developed a standing relationship with Brexit’s Bad Boys, as did Trump. Their reunions popped up on Twitter throughout 2017, ranging from political thumbs-up photo ops at Trump’s inauguration to a sideline shot of Bryant, Banks, Wigmore and British-Belizean billionaire Lord Ashcroft clad in powder blue at an Ole Miss football game.

The team valued Bryant’s insight into the Trump administration regarding relations with the U.K., as he’s frequently quoted on Westmonster—an anti-establishment, Breitbart-style news site Banks founded in 2017.

Mississippi and Big Data Dolphins

Some of the photos accompanied the reporting of investigative journalist J.J. Patrick, who with Wendy Siegelman thoroughly examined Mississippi’s ties to Trump, Brexit and Russia in mid-2017 and uncovered Big Data Dolphins in the Leave.EU network shortly after, which had been registered in the U.K. in December 2016.

Bryant referred Banks and Wigmore to the University of Mississippi’s business development hub, Insight Park, citing the data firm as a potential opportunity in economic development. Wigmore said in a 2017 interview Big Data Dolphins was fully functional and focused on artificial intelligence with operations in Mississippi and the U.K., though the Insight Park move didn’t happen for another several months.

In a candid March 2018 interview with Patrick, Wigmore explained more about Big Data Dolphins as a model using the same artificial intelligence to refine audiences during the Brexit campaign for purposes related to the insurance industry.

“What we discovered, when you take a look at – if you want to call it artificial intelligence – what we were able to refine by learning, going through the referendum, was how to be very, very clever and cost-effective in marketing how to get someone to buy your product,” Wigmore said. “… All artificial intelligence does is help refine the audience. Coca-Cola uses it. Everybody uses it. All the big brands.”

Wigmore confirmed University of Mississippi data scientists would help develop the Big Data Dolphins model, saying they “met the faculty because they knew the state governor, who they had, in turn, met through their ‘Brexit journey which led them to Trump.’”

It’s unclear how the University of Mississippi and Insight Park will proceed with Big Data Dolphins as a development opportunity.

On paper, Banks is a success story with several lucrative business ventures and enough wealth to support them and his political pursuits. In reality, much of his touted success has proven difficult to verify, according to extensive reporting from watchdog media source openDemocracyUK, from his claims of once working for Warren Buffett (“He certainly never worked for me,” Buffett said in 2017) to ongoing questions regarding how he was able to bankroll Brexit on his own without another source of undisclosed wealth.

Regardless of what the future has in store for Big Data Dolphins, a direct connection to Banks and a Banks-controlled insurance company—both of which are under investigation—cast a harsh spotlight on an otherwise innovative program for young businesses in Mississippi.