By Tim Cushing
A couple of months ago, a records request revealed a private surveillance contractor had access to nearly every piece of surveillance equipment owned and operated by the state of Utah. Banjo was the company with its pens in all of the state’s ink. Banjo’s algorithm ran on top of Utah’s surveillance gear: CCTV systems, 911 services, location data for government vehicles, and thousands of traffic cameras.
All of this was run through Banjo’s servers, which are conveniently located in Utah government buildings. Banjo’s offering is of the predictive policing variety. The CEO claims its software can “find crime” without any collateral damage to privacy. This claim is based on the “anonymization” of harvested data — a term that is essentially meaningless once enough data is collected.
This partnership is now on the rocks, thanks to an investigation by Matt Stroud and OneZero. Banjo’s CEO, Damien Patton, apparently spent a lot of his formative years hanging around with white supremacists while committing crimes.
In grand jury testimony that ultimately led to the conviction of two of his associates, Patton revealed that, as a 17-year-old, he was involved with the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On the evening of June 9, 1990 — a month before Patton turned 18 — Patton and a Klan leader took a semi-automatic TEC-9 pistol and drove to a synagogue in a Nashville suburb. With Patton at the wheel, the Ku Klux Klan member fired onto the synagogue, destroying a street-facing window and spraying bullets and shattered glass near the building’s administrative offices, which were next to that of the congregation’s rabbi. No one was struck or killed in the shooting. Afterward, Patton hid on the grounds of a white supremacist paramilitary training camp under construction before fleeing the state with the help of a second Klan member.
If you’re wondering where the state of Utah’s due diligence is in all of this, there’s a partial explanation for this lapse: the feds, who brought Patton in, screwed up on their paperwork.
Because Patton’s name was misspelled in the initial affidavit of probable cause filed in Brown’s case — an FBI agent apparently spelled Damien with an “o” rather than an “e” — any search of a federal criminal court database for “Damien Patton” would not have surfaced the affidavit.
Now that his past has been exposed, the state of Utah has announced it won’t be working with Banjo.
The Utah attorney general’s office will suspend use of a massive surveillance system after a news report showed that the founder of the company behind the effort was once an active participant in a white supremacist group and was involved in the shooting of a synagogue.
The AG’s office can only shut down so much of Banjo’s surveillance software. Other government agencies not directly controlled by the state AG are making their own judgment calls. The University of Utah is suspending its contract with Banjo, but the state’s Department of Public Safety has only gone so far as to “launch a review” of its partnership with the company. City agencies and a number of police departments who have contracts with Banjo have yet to state whether they will be terminating theirs.
And the AG’s reaction isn’t a ban. The office appears to believe it might be able to work through this.
“While we believe Mr. Patton’s remorse is sincere and believe people can change, we feel it’s best to suspend use of Banjo technology by the Utah attorney general’s office while we implement a third-party audit and advisory committee to address issues like data privacy and possible bias,” Piatt said. “We recommend other state agencies do the same.”
It’s refreshing to hear a prosecutor state that it’s possible for former criminals to turn their lives around and become positive additions to their communities, but one gets the feeling this sort of forgiveness is only extended to ex-cons who have something to offer law enforcement agencies. Everyone else is just their rap sheet for forever, no matter how many years it’s been since their last arrest.
The other problem here is the DA’s office’s tacit admission it did not take data privacy or possible bias into account before granting Banjo access to the state’s surveillance equipment, allowing it to set up servers in government buildings, and giving it free rein to dust everything with its unaudited AI pixie dust.
These are all steps that should have taken place before any of this was implemented, even if the state had chosen to do business with a company with a less controversial CEO. This immediate reaction is the right step to take, but a little proactivity now and then would be a welcome change.