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Isaac Reese: University of Utah must sever all ties with Banjo surveillance

(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.

The University of Utah has recently suspended its relationship with the Utah surveillance tech company, Banjo, which was founded and led by a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Banjo has been collecting data and conducting mass surveillance on Utahns across the state including on the University of Utah’s campus. I am a student at the U. and I am concerned about the data has been shared with Banjo by the university. This is a fundamental breach of trust and safety as I was unaware, like most students, that the university was sharing critical safety and personal information – information that can be traced back to students.

The University of Utah has only suspended the contract instead of outright ending it. This relationship must be severed entirely, and the University of Utah should never have any relationship with Banjo in any future capacity. Banjo should be put on a list of companies that are permanently banned from contracting with the university and its related entities.

The university has not given any details regarding what information has been shared, how it was shared and what Banjo has done with the information. This is critically important to know, as students’ private information may have been disclosed to a private entity outside the control of the university.

The university’s current practice is to allow students to share, at their option, their race, ethnicity, religion and sexual identity. It seems absurd to have to state this, but a former KKK member should not have access to the personal information of any student, but especially the information belonging to students who come from communities that have been violently terrorized by hate groups due to their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity.

The CEO of Banjo was not only involved with the KKK, he also helped plan a shooting of a synagogue. The lack of due diligence displayed by the University of Utah prior to signing the contract with Banjo is beyond egregious.

While a majority of this scandal’s focus has been on Banjo’s KKK ties, as it should be, it is also worth noting that the university was helping build a surveillance state on campus. Without any notice to students, let alone consent, the University of Utah had become a willing participant in Banjo’s quest to become to be Utah’s state-sanctioned, “Big Brother.”

This choice by the university and the university’s Department of Public Safety was not a larger conversation within the campus community. Instead, the decision-making process was shrouded in secrecy within the campus bureaucracy, despite those decisions having a direct effect on every safety measure on campus, on every person on campus and on the community at large. This is yet another glaring example of the university’s administrative ineptitude; a bureaucratic apparatus that has consistently failed to protect students, before and after the Lauren McCluskey murder.

The damage created by Banjo having widespread access to student information has been done. The current status of that data — where it resides now and where it will reside in the months and years ahead — is unknown.

The university claims that the information provided to Banjo was “information included within the Department of Public Safety’s record management system.” That is of no consolation, as that information is vast and detailed and could very well jeopardize student safety.

The University of Utah cannot continue providing insufficiently detailed and purposely vague statements. The campus community deserves a full accounting of what information was released to Banjo, by what means, upon whose orders, and most importantly, what Banjo did and will do with the information.

Isaac Reese

Isaac Reese, Salt Lake City, is a student at the University of Utah studying international studies with minors in political science and campaign management.

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