State auditors find that Banjo oversold its surveillance tech to the Utah attorney general’s office

The technology shouldn’t have had access to public safety systems, report states.

(screengrab from Banjo company website) Park City-based Banjo has a contract with the state of Utah to create a live-time surveillance system to help law enforcement and other entities respond to situations faster. Some experts worry about privacy implications.

Utah auditors have concluded that Banjo, a Park City technology company that has pocketed millions of dollars in state funding, exaggerated the capabilities of a real-time surveillance platform that the attorney general’s office contracted to use.

The report found that the “Live Time” platform lacked the artificial intelligence technology the company asserted it had and that the system instead “appeared suited to aid a skilled analyst via the power of an enhanced dashboard.”

State officials might have detected that discrepancy if they’d been more skeptical of the company’s advertising pitch, auditors indicated.

For instance, Banjo told the state that in a mock kidnapping scenario, it took law enforcement eight hours to find an abducted child while “Live Time” accomplished the same thing in just eight minutes, Utah State Auditor John Dougall said. The attorney general’s office simply accepted that claim on its face rather than validating that the platform actually pulled off the feat.

Because the system was less powerful than advertised, Dougall’s office said, other companies may have been able to offer competing technology if the state had searched for it. The state has paid Banjo more than $3.3 million since 2018, and the University of Utah and city of Ogden have given the company another $500,000 and $136,000 respectively, according to the state’s transparency website.

Dougall’s office began its review at the request of the attorney general’s office, which asked auditors to look for any signs of bias embedded in the technology. Those concerns erupted last year when news broke that Banjo’s founder and CEO, Damien Patton, had years earlier identified with white supremacist groups. Patton stepped down in May, but concerns lingered about state-supported tech being used to spy on or target Utahns.

The company, which has been rebranded as safeXai, has said its technology collects data from social media, traffic cameras, security cameras and 911 calls to pinpoint events like car crashes, shootings and child abductions. The idea was to alert public safety officials about these events more quickly.

Representatives from the attorney general’s office said they agreed with many of the recommendations advanced by Dougall and the commission he formed to review the Banjo contracts but continued to assert that the platform would’ve been useful to the state.

“The Attorney General’s Office maintains its essential and integral commitment to the liberties and rights of all Utah citizens,” they said in a prepared statement. “Chief among these is the freedom from predators and other crime and we believe this system, had it been fully built out, would have saved lives.”

Dougall’s findings did help allay concerns about “inappropriate discrimination” associated with the platform, according to the report — the system simply wasn’t sophisticated enough for that, Dougall said in an interview. Typically, bias creeps into facial recognition software or other technology when there’s some element of machine learning, he said, but Banjo’s platform didn’t seem to have the necessary artificial intelligence for this.

“The system was pitched as this really powerful artificial intelligence tool,” Dougall said. “Those logarithms really didn’t appear to exist.”

It’s also less likely that sensitive personal information was misused or transferred than officials previously have worried. Still, the report said, the technology’s “access to certain public safety systems should not have been permitted based on existing industry best practices.”

Dougall explained that 911 dispatch centers had allowed Banjo to directly query their databases. Although officials limited what the company could access and did not hand over sensitive personal information, auditors called for more secure processes that would’ve given the centers greater control over how the data was requested, presented and shared, he said.

The attorney general’s office should also have done a better job of vetting Banjo executives, including Patton, according to auditors.

“The lack of a rigorous background check process is heightened when one has the potential to access sensitive [personally identifiable information] as well as the capability to steer law enforcement investigatory resources,” the audit stated, which also noted that the company did not provide any documentation clarifying whether or not Patton still owned stock in Banjo.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office said the auditors confirmed that “people’s private information was not at risk” and further responded that there is no requirement for state agencies to investigate companies or their employees during the contracting process. Despite that, the office “went above and beyond” in checking out Banjo by interviewing colleagues, technology experts, police representatives and others who were familiar with the company, Reyes wrote in a response to the audit.

“The subsequent negative information that came out about Mr. Patton was contained in records that were sealed and/or would not have been available in a robust criminal background check,” he wrote. “Based on our first-hand experience and close observation, we are convinced the horrible mistakes of the founder’s youth never carried over in any malevolent way to Banjo, his other initiatives, attitudes, or character.”

Banjo spurred a nationwide outcry nearly a year ago when news emerged that Reyes had signed a controversial data-sharing contract with the company, then persuaded other law enforcement to jump on board as well.

The attorney general’s office later opted to suspend its contract with Banjo, pending the results of a review by the state auditor. Several other Utah departments followed suit or canceled their Banjo contracts altogether.

Dougall said the attorney general’s office suspended its Banjo contract while the “Live Time” platform was still under construction. Banjo would have added more “privacy-safety inputs” before the platform’s full launch, Reyes’ office said. When asked about the status of the contract, a spokesman for Reyes said that the company “formally known as Banjo no longer exists,” so “the issue of whether the contract is suspended or cancelled is a moot point.”

The agency does not plan to pursue a similar contract with other companies, the spokesman said.

In response to the audit, Connor Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute, noted that state lawmakers this year passed “landmark legislation” to create privacy officer positions within Utah government and increase oversight of data collection and surveillance efforts. The audit reaffirms the need for those measures, he said.

“While finding innovative ways to protect people is laudable, the eagerness with which new technologies are adopted and exploited can harm more people than it helps,” he said in a prepared statement.