Banjo’s budget on the chopping block as state auditor assembles review commission

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) this Nov. 26, 2018, file photo shows State Treasurer David Damschen, left, and State Auditor John Dougall, right, during a Board of Canvassers meeting. Dougall has announced a privacy commission to review the practices and policy of Banjo, a private surveillance company with millions in state contracts. But impending legislative budget cuts that will pull the state out of some or all of these contracts may make the review a moot point.

The state auditor has assembled a team to review privacy concerns stemming from the surveillance company Banjo. But an audit of the platform could become irrelevant as lawmakers look to nix state contracts entirely.

The newly formed Commission on Protecting Privacy and Preventing Discrimination includes nine people from the technology, civil liberties and law enforcement sectors. The group will specifically provide recommendations to State Auditor John Dougall on how to evaluate Banjo’s algorithms for bias. They’ll also look into whether the company’s Live Time software protects personal privacy as claimed.

“[We’re getting] the best minds together with the best backgrounds to help us determine that path forward,” Dougall said.

Notable members of the commission include Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera; David Litvack, senior policy adviser in the Salt Lake City mayor’s office; and Suresh Venkatasubramanian, a computing professor for the University of Utah and a board member of the ACLU of Utah.

Banjo did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but Dougall said representatives with the company have been cooperative and receptive to the review.

Banjo collected data from social media, traffic cameras, security cameras, 911 calls and other “signals” to detect events like car crashes, shootings and child abductions. The idea was to alert public safety officials about these events more quickly, although the platform’s effectiveness had only been tested in mock scenarios.

The company secured numerous government contracts in Utah with support from Attorney General Sean Reyes. It is not known how many contracts Banjo has with cities, counties or local police departments.

The Utah attorney general’s office called for an audit of Banjo’s three state contracts when news emerged in late April that CEO Damien Patton had once been involved with the KKK and a synagogue shooting. Patton has since resigned.

If the privacy commission recommends removing forward with a full audit of the company, Dougall said, it will likely be a lengthy process.

“The scope of this could take quite a while,” Dougall said. “This is not something where you come in and have one meeting and are done.”

But the question remains whether there will be any state funds available to pay for a full-blown review.

The University of Utah cancelled its $500,000 yearly agreement with Banjo in early May. Banjo’s two other state contracts, with the attorney general’s office and the Department of Public Safety, also appear tenuous.

As state lawmakers look to tighten budgets during economic turmoil brought on by the pandemic, DPS offered up its $850,000 annual contract with the company as the first line item cut.

“We were going to give that back anyway,” Commissioner Jess Anderson said during an Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on May 27. “Due to fallout with them, we’ve severed our ties.”

The attorney general’s office offered to slash half its Banjo funding if called on to reduce the budget by 2%. But the office only agreed to sever the full $850,000 contract in the extreme case that it had to cut back by 10%.

“We believe this tool does save lives and can produce a lot of efficiencies for the state without violating individuals’ personal, private information,” Daniel Burton, the attorney general’s chief of policy and legislative affairs, told the committee.

Continuing Banjo’s funding and moving forward with the audit would push the state to have a conversation about how it uses data, Burton added.

“Our concern is that the state is going to be, at some point, in the business of using its data somewhere, whether it’s facial recognition, drivers licenses, [or] whether it’s [cameras] in the future,” Burton said. “We think it’s better to create that future than let it happen on its own.”

Lawmakers on the committee disagreed about the software’s usefulness to the state.

“I don’t quite grasp still why we’re keeping them on contract,” said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City. “I would prefer to see what the auditor has to say before we commit any more resources to something like this.”

Legislators also asked whether Banjo’s Live Time software had made any difference in improving public safety. Burton said that the platform had only been up and running for a few months before news reports, legislators and members of the public began raising concerns.

“It was a brand-new tool,” Burton said. “Though I agree, we do need to identify whether it actually works.”

The committee unanimously voted to require the attorney general’s office to eliminate all funding to Banjo if the budget requires at least 5% in reductions.

“At this point, I want to make sure we completely back away from Banjo … until we can do an evaluation,” said Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi. “I have significant concerns.”

Rich Piatt with the attorney general’s office said in an email that he’s not surprised that Banjo’s funding is on the chopping block and that the office supports Dougall’s new privacy commission.

“Banjo is just one example of the high tech crime fighting tools available to protect citizens of our state and we need bright-line standards in order to balance the use of those technologies for safety with the critical privacy interests and civil liberties of Utahns,” Piatt wrote. “The attorney general’s office hopes that Banjo will receive a favorable review from the Privacy Commission when its work is complete. But most importantly, we look forward to what we can learn from the process.”