Artificial Intelligence: Banjo, the Startup That is Utah’s All-Seeing Eye-in-the-Sky

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Banjo, Inc., a small, very secretive company in Utah, has seemingly no-holds-barred, real-time access to the state’s surveillance data.

The State of Utah has contracted with Banjo, Inc, a startup founded by CEO Damien Patton, to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to data collected from state traffic cameras, CCTV and “public safety” cameras, location data for state-owned vehicles, and other sensitive data. (Vice.com/Motherboard)

The objective: “Identify real-time events.”

According to Utah’s agreement with the startup,  Banjo will provide software solutions using artificial intelligence capable of accessing and analyzing thousands of live data sources simultaneously to provide real-time information to law enforcement, cities, counties, state agencies, etc.

Banjo is also bound to provide real-time content discovery by location across all media networks. These include social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, news outlets, and blogs. It will also monitor live 911 calls, automatic vehicle location (police, fire, EMS, Planes, Trains, etc.), traffic applications, and weather. Public cameras, satellites, traffic cameras, alarm centers, sensors (air quality, chemicals, etc.) are also in Banjo’s remit.

The State requires Banjo to help multiple agencies better serve the public through quicker response times to real-time events.

Therefore, Banjo will use AI to monitor all of the above data, humanly not possible. Banjo’s AI will also analyze the feeds from thousands of public surveillance cameras.

Privacy concerns

Banjo processes all this data after stripping out all personally identifiable information to respect privacy concerns.

The company tries to allay fears of it becoming an all-knowing, Orwellian ‘big brother’ that would ride roughshod on citizens’ right to privacy.

“We strip out all personally identifiable information,” said Bryan Smith, Banjo’s top lobbyist at a meeting with state officials in August. “We’re not trying to ID a suspect at all. “

“What we’re trying to do is point you guys to a problem. We’re telling you where the needle in a haystack is, not who that problem is.”

According to Banjo’s website, Founder and CEO Damien Patton is “an industry authority on the ethical use of AI and data.”

“From day one we’ve stripped personal identifiable information (PII) from all of our data, where even our engineers cannot deanonymize it,” Patton said last year.

The Banjo site also claims that the startup’s first patents centered around protecting user privacy by delivering information without any personally identifiable information.

Banjo folklore

One story related by Banjo is about the 2017 Las Vegas shooting at Mandalay Bay. Within minutes of the shooting, the company could parse a Facebook Live video in which somebody said something about gunshots in Spanish. Simultaneously, Banjo gathered camera footage from the Vegas Strip that showed people running helter-skelter. These data points, along with a tweet, enabled the company to say with confidence that “a mass shooting was happening. Sadly, we weren’t working with law enforcement at the time.”

Further, in 2018, Banjo participated in a simulated child abduction drill conducted by the Utah Attorney General and law enforcement. It took a staff of 100 police officers eight hours to recover the simulated child. According to Ric Cantrell, chief of staff, Banjo located the child in 27 seconds. It also claimed: “We could have helped them recover the child in four minutes.”

Banjo: Treading the fine line

However, it’s a tricky trade-off between citizens’ privacy rights and their safety.

“I’ve run out of adjectives to describe how upsetting and dystopian things like this are,” said Chris Gilliard, a professor at Macomb Community College who studies police surveillance and privacy, to Vice.

“AI-infused eyesight is a superpower that we haven’t seen before in policing, and is something we really should have rules about and discuss whether that’s OK,” said Andrew Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement, to Vice.

But the benefits of deploying AI in law enforcement are hard to dismiss.

“We want to make sure that we utilize appropriate technology to keep people safe,” Cantrell says. “Which is our mission, right?”

Related Story:  Artificial Intelligence: Hackers Raid Notorious Facial Recognition Startup Clearview AI                             

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