Following an explosive report about the dark past of its founder and CEO Damien Patton, Utah-based company Banjo is facing a backlash in its own backyard. After revelations of Patton's former ties to a branch of the KKK came to light, Utah's attorney general and the University of Utah froze their relationships with the company. Now, the company will suspend all of its contracts in the state.
Following the actions by the state AG's office, Banjo announced that it would suspend all of its state contracts in Utah, "not ingesting any government data or providing any services to government entities" until an audit could be conducted. Banjo signed a $20.7 million contract with the state of Utah in 2019, a relationship set to span five years.
“The Utah Attorney General’s office is shocked and dismayed at reports that Banjo’s founder had any affiliation with any hate group or groups in his youth," Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' office said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. "Neither the AG nor anyone in the AG’s office were aware of these affiliations or actions. They are indefensible. He has said so himself. "
In the investigation on Patton, OneZero revealed that not only did Patton have ties to active KKK members at the age of 17, but that in 1990 he drove a car past a synagogue in a Nashville suburb while a KKK member shot at the building. Following the incident, he reportedly went into hiding at a white supremacist training camp. According to the reporting, Patton's affiliation with white supremacists continued into his adulthood after he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, though Patton frames those ties as solely during his youth, after he "was taken in" by white supremacists while living on the street.
In a statement to TechCrunch and published on the company's blog, Patton expressed remorse for his actions while not directly addressing how his violent, extremist past never came up when telling his own story as a founder:
I have worked every day to be a responsible member of society. I’ve built companies, employed hundreds and have worked to treat everyone around me equally. In recent years, I’ve sought to create technologies that 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.
Once a proximity social networking app, Banjo pivoted in recent years to become a real-time intelligence platform for police departments and public officials. Its core product, Live Time, purports to provide "life-saving information in seconds" in order to mobilize emergency responses, but has faced criticism for its surveillance-driven mission. As Vice recently observed, the company's desire to conduct real-time AI-powered monitoring on public surveillance camera feeds is "something that has terrified security and civil liberties experts for years."
Reyes noted that while he "believe[s] Mr. Patton’s remorse is sincere," the Utah AG's office would suspend its use of Banjo while a third-party investigates the state's implementation for "issues like data privacy and possible bias," suggesting that other state agencies using Banjo should follow suit.
"Banjo’s mission is to save lives and minimize human suffering to help first responders in emergency situations while not invading people’s civil liberties and rights," the company wrote in a blog post announcing plans to pause state contracts. "We are looking forward to the audit to show that we can build technology to help save lives and protect people’s rights."