Salt Lake City police won’t share data with surveillance company Banjo

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday July 10, 2019.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown announced Wednesday that the department would not provide any data to Banjo, a secretive technology company with a cozy relationship with the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Amid concerns from privacy advocates that the company’s surveillance system goes too far, the department said in a news release that it was committed to protecting civil liberties “while ensuring appropriate law enforcement protection to the community” and would discontinue its initial review of the product.

“As law enforcement, we are hopeful for the assistance that a product like Banjo offers. But we do take personal privacy very seriously,” Brown said in a statement. “The founding principles of this country include the rights of the individual and their privacy. Because of this we want to make sure we fully vet any product before sharing their information.”

A spokeswoman with the department told The Tribune police are watching to see if Banjo changes anything moving forward.

Jessie Councilman, a Banjo spokeswoman, said in a statement “We commend anyone who takes privacy seriously because we do. Privacy is built into everything we work on here.”

The company’s surveillance system has the ability to screen data from 911 calls and monitor all of the state’s traffic cameras, the location of police cars, social media and more. But Damien Patton, Banjo’s founder and CEO, has declined to be specific about the work of his company, including identifying which police agencies in the state are participating and precisely how it goes about protecting the privacy of Utahns.

He previously declined interview requests from The Salt Lake Tribune and from the news organization VICE.

But in an interview Tuesday with KUTV-Ch. 2, Patton estimated about 20 counties and cities have signed up, though he did not name them. He said the company goes to extraordinary lengths to strip out personal information from its data.

“We have several patents that have been awarded that take out peoples’ private information. Our company doesn’t even have access to it,” he told KUTV.

The Park City Police Department was an early adopter of Banjo, sharing, among other data, bus GPS locations and private surveillance cameras with the company. Ogden police also share their network of city surveillance cameras with Banjo.

Proponents of the technology include the Utah Department of Public Safety, which says the technology could help improve response times to traffic accidents, and the University of Utah, which says it could help their police ensure “more seamless coordination and communication” with law enforcement partners across the state.

State leaders who have bought into the system envision a future where Banjo’s artificial intelligence helps police rescue a kidnapped kid, directs the highway patrol to crashes before someone calls police and alerts firefighters to a blaze moments after it ignites, all while relying on data that doesn’t identify individuals.

But security experts, professors and civil libertarians have all raised concerns about the direction Utah is headed with Banjo. And on Monday, the Libertas Institute announced it would be working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a bill to ensure companies like Banjo are not inappropriately obtaining, using and sharing private information.

The organization said in a tweet that Rep. Francis Gibson, who has criticized the surveillance system Banjo is building, has indicated he would be willing to sponsor such legislation in an upcoming session.

Patton did not address such legislation in his KUTV interview, but said he would welcome an audit into how the company uses, stores and disposes of data.

He said there should be “full transparency when you’re working with the government so that the citizens can see how their tax dollars are being spent.”

News editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.