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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah tech firm Banjo has suspended all data collection and contracts in the state after a report alleges the company’s CEO was involved with a white supremacist group three decades ago.
A Tuesday report from tech news outlet OneZero alleges that Banjo co-founder and CEO Damien Patton, 47, was involved with a chapter of the Dixie Knights, a Ku Klux Klan group, active in the Nashville area in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The report includes details from federal court documents in which Patton admitted to assisting the triggerman in a June 1990 drive-by shooting at a Nashville-area synagogue in which no one was injured.
The company says it will suspend all contracts, refrain from ingesting any government data and halt providing any services to government entities until an independent audit has been completed by a third party, according to a statement on the company's website posted late Wednesday evening.
"Banjo believes that any company working with the government should be subject to audits and oversight," the statement said. "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."
Banjo's announcement comes after Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’s office said Tuesday after the OneZero report was published it would halt a $20.7 million state contract with Banjo.
"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," the company's statement went on to say. "We are looking forward to the audit to show that we can build technology to help save lives and protect people’s rights."
In a statement posted to Banjo’s website Tuesday, Patton apologized for his past actions.
"I am deeply ashamed of this time in my life and feel sincere remorse and deep regret for my affiliation with hateful groups whose actions and beliefs are completely despicable, immoral and indefensible," Patton wrote. "I am sorry to all those who I have hurt and offended and understand that no apology will undo what I have done. For the last 30 years, I have worked to right this grievous mistake as a lost, misguided adolescent kid."
Patton went on to say, "I have worked every day to be a responsible member of society. I’ve built companies, employed hundreds and have worked to treat everyone around me equally. In recent years, I’ve sought to create technologies that stop human suffering and save lives without violating privacy. I know that I will never be able to erase my past but I work hard every day to make up for mistakes. This is something I will never stop doing."
Neither Reyes nor anyone in his office was aware of any of Patton’s alleged KKK affiliations or actions, a news release from the attorney general's office says.
"(Patton’s actions) are indefensible. He has said so himself," the release said. "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. We recommend other state agencies do the same."
As first reported by Vice, the state of Utah’s $20.7 million contract with Banjo was signed last July. The contract gave the company access to Utah Department of Transportation traffic cameras, as well as data from the Utah Department of Public Safety and Utah Highway Patrol.
Banjo operates a single service — its flagship technology Live Time, according to the company’s website. The service "delivers life-saving information in seconds (rather than minutes) to first responders to better identify emergencies, reduce response times and save lives," the website says.
Live Time uses a combination of artificial intelligence and various data streams to provide the information to first responders, according to Banjo’s website. The company points out that personal identifying information is scrubbed from their data, which is anonymized when presented to first responders. Banjo also doesn’t help first responders make decisions; they simply provide them with information, the site says.
OneZero points out that artificial intelligence often reflects its creators’ own biases, which can include deep-seated racism.
In a Tuesday news release, NAACP Salt Lake Branch President Jeanetta Williams said she was "appalled" that Banjo was able to obtain such a large contract given Patton’s past alleged discrimination against minorities.
"With Patton’s past affiliation with the KKK and his experience with surveillance, it is extremely alarming as to the data that he has acquired," Williams said in the release. "The NAACP is urging that a thorough investigation is done to finding out if any of his data was done to track minorities and other unlawful activities."
For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done.
–Damien Patton, Banjo co-founder and CEO
Vice reported the state’s contract gave Banjo access to state data in all 29 Utah counties, as well as the state’s 13 largest cities and the University of Utah, for campus security purposes.
Tuesday, the university said in a news release it supports Reyes’s decision to put the Banjo contract on hold.
"The university condemns racism in any form, including the actions and rhetoric of white supremacy groups, and is committed to creating an inclusive environment where there is no tolerance for racism or bias," the release said. "The university expects this of itself and its business partners."
In his statement, Patton details his rocky childhood and adolescence. He says he "suffered abuse in every form," left home at a young age and lived on the streets.
"I was desperate and afraid. I was taken in by skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations. Over the course of a few years, I did many things as part of those groups that I am profoundly ashamed of and sorry about."
During this time of his life, he did some terrible, despicable and hateful things, some of which were directed toward his own Jewish mother, Patton said. But he was able to turn his life around through his military service in the U.S. Navy, which in part led him to create Banjo with the mission of assisting law enforcement agencies, he wrote.
However, Patton said he has not been able to accept or come to terms with why he became involved with such a hateful group in his adolescence.
"One thing I have done, through therapy and outreach, I have learned to forgive that 15 year old boy who, despite the absence of ideological hate, was lured into a dark and evil world," Patton said. "For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done."