CEO of AI surveillance upstart Banjo walks the plank after white supremacist past sinks contracts

Damien Patton 'deeply ashamed' of drive-by synagogue shooting

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The CEO of surveillance AI upstart Banjo, Damien Patton, has quit the company he founded following revelations he was involved with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1990s and participated in the shooting of a synagogue.

“Banjo, Inc announced today that the company's current CEO and founder, Damien Patton has resigned and that the company will be transitioning to a new, reconstituted leadership team effectively immediately,” the US-based biz said in a statement. The CTO will take over as CEO.

The decision to eject was taken after OneZero dug up his testimony in a criminal trial in 1991 and 1992 in which his associates were found guilty of a range of charges around the drive-by shooting of a synagogue in Nashville in June 1990, when Patton was 17 years old.

Patton had not publicly acknowledged his white supremacist past despite talking extensively about his back story in magazine articles about Banjo’s formation. The news prompted the state of Utah to immediately drop two of the company’s largest contracts: a $20.7m deal with the Department of Public Safety, and a $750,000 contract with the state’s Attorney General that covers real-time monitoring of social media and CCTV footage.

Banjo makes machine-learning-based software that studies stuff in real time, such as security camera feeds and social media posts, and raises alerts if spots anything interesting, such as an in-progress crime. Patton previously told El Reg he built and trained its technology on data scraped from Facebook apps built and released in the mid-2010s that harvested people's photos, friends, and other profile information.

In response to losing its multi-million-dollar deals, Banjo announced it had “decided to suspend all Utah contracts by not ingesting any government data or providing any services to government entities until an independent third party audit has been contracted and completed.”

No one was killed or injured in the synagogue shooting though a window and glass was shattered by the hail of bullets. Patton was behind the wheel at the time, and a Klan leader pulled the trigger.

Soon after, Patton moved to a paramilitary training camp to avoid investigators and later fled Tennessee with the help of another Klan member, it's claimed. He joined the US Navy; an experience he says caused him to change his life for the better.

Testimony

But prosecutors tracked Patton down, and he pleaded guilty to a charge of juvenile delinquency connected to the shooting, giving testimony in order to receive a more lenient sentence. He did not spend any time behind bars while his associates served 27 and 42 months in prison for federal hate crimes.

Patton admitted during the course of the OneZero investigation that he was a member of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the Nashville area called the Dixie Knights, and that he was involved with white supremacist and skinhead groups, even after he left the state.

In a post immediately after word emerged last month of his past, Patton said he felt “deeply ashamed” of the “dark and despicable period in my life that I am extremely remorseful about and sorry for.”

He went on: “These actions taken in the past are completely at odds with the work Banjo does day-in and day-out. As I traveled, grew up, and fought for this country, I became the man I am today, who fights for justice and is dedicated to making the world safer for all.”

He added that “for the last 30 years, I have worked to right this grievous mistake as a lost, misguided adolescent kid.”

Banjo advertises itself as “a technology company... that seeks to reduce human suffering and save lives by getting first responders the information they need to deploy public safety resources as quickly as possible.” Its technology uses artificial intelligence to scour the internet and other data feeds in real time and location data to allow for searches of all activity in a specific place and a specific time.

But with concerns about how such technology is being used by government departments, and worries that artificial intelligence programs can have intrinsic biases that put people from minorities at a disadvantage, the revelation that the CEO of a surveillance firm was once a white supremacist and was charged as part of a hate crime – albeit a long time ago – was too much to keep Patton on.

New CEO Justin Lindsey said in a statement: “I am confident Banjo’s greatest days are still ahead, and will do everything in my power to ensure our mission succeeds. However, under the current circumstances, I believe Banjo’s best path forward is under different leadership.” ®

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