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CEO of Surveillance Firm Banjo Resigns After Past Involvement With KKK Comes to Light

Illustration for article titled CEO of Surveillance Firm Banjo Resigns After Past Involvement With KKK Comes to Light
Screenshot: Banjo

The CEO of surveillance firm Banjo, one of the many firms pitching law enforcement agencies across the country on artificial intelligence and big data-backed predictive policing, is leaving the company after an April report outed him as a former neo-Nazi skinhead who was involved in a 1990 Ku Klux Klan drive-by shooting on a synagogue.

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Banjo wrote in a brief blog post on Monday that Damien Patton will no longer hold the CEO role “effective immediately” and will be replaced in that capacity by chief technology officer Justin R. Lindsey. The company didn’t explicitly refer to Patton’s past, and he only alluded to the issue in that statement.

“I am confident Banjo’s greatest days are still ahead, and will do everything in my power to ensure our mission succeeds,” Patton wrote. “However, under the current circumstances, I believe Banjo’s best path forward is under different leadership.”

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The investigation, posted last month on OneZero, found that when Patton was 17, he was involved with the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and testified against other members in court that he was the driver in an evening shooting of a Nashville synagogue before hiding out at a paramilitary compound and leaving the state. No one was physically wounded or killed in the incident.

Patton was charged and pleaded guilty to acts of juvenile delinquency, while the two other Klan members, Leonard William Armstrong and Jonathan David Brown, were brought up on civil rights charges. Armstrong took a plea deal and Brown was convicted of accessory after the fact to a conspiracy to violate civil rights and two counts of lying to the grand jury, according to OneZero.

Patton also admitted to participating in other Klan-related activities like meetings and speeches, and OneZero found he appeared in a photo in an August 1992 article in the Tennessean on efforts to build a Tennessee office of the Aryan Nations. That photo showed Patton and other white supremacists at the home of onetime Aryan Nations leader Bobby Norton.

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Banjo secured a five-year, $20.7 million contract with the state of Utah in July 2019 to pull data including traffic and security camera feeds, 911 calls, geolocation data for state vehicles, and more and pair it with data from social media feeds to form what it calls a “Live Time Intelligence” system. According to Motherboard, as of early March 2020 it was connected to 911 call centers across the state, as well as was deployed or planning to deploy in 13 counties, 13 of the state’s biggest cities, 10 other cities “of significant relevance,” the University of Utah campus, and dozens of other localities.

That contract was put on hold as of April 30; in a statement to TechCrunch, the Utah Attorney General’s office said it was “shocked and dismayed” to learn of Patton’s past. The Deseret News reported that the AG’s office has moved up a previously planned audit of the contract with Banjo and that it was seeking to hire a third party contractor to conduct an investigation.

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State auditor John Dougall has also said his office would be looking into whether there is any evidence that Banjo’s platform has any “algorithmic biases,” adding the probe would be complicated enough to involve private experts, law enforcement, and academia and take up to a year to complete.

Research has shown that surveillance technologies like face recognition are in their current state are riddled with algorithmic biases, making their use in mass surveillance alarming above and beyond the other privacy and due process concerns they pose—and Banjo isn’t the only firm in the field whose founder has a questionable backstory. Face recognition firm Clearview AI recently said it would terminate all private contracts after reports revealed its chief Hoan Ton-That’s extensive ties to the far-right movement, with the firm saying it would instead focus on its efforts with law enforcement.

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Patton told the Deseret News he had “suffered abuse in every form” as a child and that he had abandoned his extremist views while serving in the U.S. Navy.

“I did terrible things and said despicable and hateful things, including to my own Jewish mother, that today I find indefensibly wrong, and feel extreme remorse for,” Patton told the paper. “I have spent most of my adult lifetime working to make amends for this shameful period in my life... For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done.”

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Patton added that his intent with his recent work was to 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.” 

A company spokesperson confirmed to the Deseret News that Patton is no longer an employee, no longer on the board, and has no operating capacity on the company.”

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"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post

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DISCUSSION

I know I’ll probably get blasted for this, but is there a statute of limitations for when someone’s past actions no longer disqualify them from future endeavors?

In this case, the nature of his past actions absolutely warrant an investigation into the current practices of his surveillance company that works with law enforcement, and if the investigation showed that he’s still a card-carrying member of the alt-right (read: Nazi shit stains), sure, shit can his ass. On the other hand, the shitty, racist behavior they referenced happened almost 30 years ago. If you think he was right to lose his job, are we saying that people are incapable of realizing the errors of their ways and changing their views and behaviors from the time they’re teenagers to the time they’re middle-aged adults? If he’s truly reformed, realizes what a shitty person he was, and has genuinely tried to be better, is he still no longer allowed to have a meaningful career in any field that might conflict with his prior behavior?

We like to talk about criminal justice reform, but what about a crime that’s less obviously distasteful than a hate crime? What about a teenager who was arrested for robbing a convenience store in the early ‘90s? If they served their time and now want to be a contributing member of society, are they disqualified from any job that involves financial transactions because they stole some money from a cash register 30 years ago? If you believe that people can redeem themselves and deserve second chances, you have to apply it in real situations, and IF he is truly a better person and not still a racist twat, losing his job for something he did as a teenager 30 years ago seems kind of harsh.