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Banjo suspends data collection from Utah pending audit

Posted at 9:05 PM, Apr 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-29 23:15:27-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Banjo, the Utah-based company that gathers social media posts, traffic cameras and other government data into a massive monitoring system, announced it would suspend data collection from the state.

It's pending an audit ordered by the Utah Attorney General's Office into the company's system and whether it is biased.

"Following yesterday’s announcement by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, Banjo has decided to suspend all Utah contracts by not ingesting any government data or providing any services to government entities until an independent third party audit has been contracted and completed. Banjo believes that any company working with the government should be subject to audits and oversight," the company said in a statement posted on its website Wednesday night.

"The audit will have direct oversight by the state and will look to ensure there’s no bias in the technology, that Banjo is not a surveillance company and that all data for the state is being handled per the contract."

In the statement, Banjo expressed confidence it would be cleared by the audit.

"Banjo’s mission is to save lives and minimize human suffering to help first responders in emergency situations while not invading people’s civil liberties and rights. We are looking forward to the audit to show that we can build technology to help save lives and protect people’s rights," the statement said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes ordered the audit after the online outlet OneZero reported on Banjo founder Damien Patton's past in a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and his involvement in a drive-by shooting at a Tennesee synagogue. Patton said in a statement to the news outlet that he was a teenager at the time and has since tried to make amends.

"We were shocked and we absolutely condemn the culture of hate, and also realize that people can change. That redemption is a real thing, and that Mr. Patton has expressed great remorse and has lived an exemplary life in his adult years, trying to as he said to make amends for that, so we recognize that," Reyes said in an interview Wednesday with FOX 13. "Notwithstanding, we are encouraging all of our partners and state agencies and others to put on hold the use of the Banjo technology."

Reyes said the audit would look at privacy and bias in Banjo's artificial intelligence programs.

"There’s a possibility, especially with artificial intelligence when you’re gathering and analyzing data that there’s a bias that’s implicit in the very architecture of it, so that’s something that we would look at, along with other privacy issues," he said.

But Banjo has faced scrutiny ever since it inked a contract worth up to $20 million with the state and its access to government resources as part of its system, which collects the data and alerts its clients to potential emergencies. Patton has said the program could save lives and insists any data is anonymized.

But when FOX 13 first reported on Banjo last year, it faced scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats on Utah's Capitol Hill. The House Majority leader blasted the program as "North Korea-esque." Earlier this year, legislative leaders who control the state's budget, quietly denied a request for additional funding for the program and threatened legislative oversight. The Utah Attorney General's Office has defended the program as being one that could potentially save lives by alerting the proper authorities to an emergency.

"From the beginning, going back two years now, I and members of our caucus have had concerns with Banjo," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who sits on the legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee. "The arrangement the state has had with the company has never been very transparent, and the public has had good reasons to be skeptical. This now seems like another example of state leaders valuing personal and political relationships ahead of taxpayers and transparency."

The Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning policy group that has been highly critical of Banjo, called for legislative hearings and Utah State Auditor John Dougall to get involved.

"There’s very little public trust in Banjo’s operations, and giving a secretive company deep access to public data is rightly concerning to privacy-minded Utahns," the group's president, Connor Boyack, said in a text to FOX 13. "We fully support an independent audit and strong legal restrictions on how sensitive information about people’s lives and locations can be accessed by companies like Banjo, and used by government officials."