AI Company Has Access To Pretty Much Every Piece Of Surveillance Tech The State Of Utah Owns
from the good-time-was-had-by-all-surveilled dept
A stash of documents obtained from Utah government agencies has exposed another surveillance tech purveyor who’s threatening to disrupt privacy for unquantified law enforcement gains. Banjo is the innocuous name the company does business under, led by a CEO sporting a ZZ Top beard and an urban camo sports coat.
The public this is going to affect wasn’t cut in on the deal. But nearly everything their tax dollars pay for was. Banjo’s proprietary panopticon — with servers located on Utah government property — draws from nearly every piece of surveillance tech already deployed by cities and law enforcement. Banjo’s contribution is the algorithms it drops on top of all of this:
The state of Utah has given an artificial intelligence company real-time access to state traffic cameras, CCTV and “public safety” cameras, 911 emergency systems, location data for state-owned vehicles, and other sensitive data.
The company, called Banjo, says that it’s combining this data with information collected from social media, satellites, and other apps, and claims its algorithms “detect anomalies” in the real world.
This isn’t surveillance creep. This is a surveillance sprint.
Banjo has installed its own servers in the headquarters of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), a civilian agency, and has direct, real-time access to the thousands of traffic cameras the state operates. It has jacked into 911 systems of emergency operations centers all over the state, according to contracts, emails, and other government documents obtained by Motherboard using public record requests, as well as video and audio recordings of city council meetings around the state that we reviewed.
There’s more to it than this long list. Banjo also pulls in data from social media, autonomous vehicles, flight info, and “data signal ingestion for IoT sensors.” Anything that crosses the internet or the state’s government intranets is converted into data points for Banjo’s thirsty software.
The state of Utah has already agreed to sprinkle Banjo’s surveillance dust over all 29 counties in the state, as well as its 13 largest cities and 10 other cities that have the misfortune of being deemed “significantly relevant” to the state’s spyware deployment plans.
Banjo promises a mixture of predictive policing and real-time alerts, with an eye on the worst crimes of course. Banjo’s reps and executives talk a lot about how much child abduction this thing could stop — or at least bring to an end quickly. But there’s nothing on the record showing Banjo has done any crime prevention or crime solving, despite the breadth of its access and the state’s explicit blessing of its unproven tech.
Banjo also literally unbelievably claims it can do all of this without engaging in massive amounts of privacy violations. It says it anonymizes all data it scoops up from dozens of sources, pointing cops at crime, rather than people. First of all, anonymization is a myth that has been debunked several times. Second of all, this:
Banjo’s pitch to Utah from the beginning has been that it finds crime without identifying criminals. It looks for cars without looking for who is inside the cars. It detects riots and protests without telling cops who is at them. It detects drug use hotspots without identifying the drug user. Patton often mentions his company has patented technology to strip PII from publicly available data, but patents Motherboard found do not go into detail about how that is done.
Pitching its product, Banjo talks a lot about child abductions, mass shootings, acts of terrorism… all the things we always hear about when law enforcement wants to extend its reach and grasp. Plenty of surveillance tech has been purchased using these noble goals, only to be deployed to do normal crime stuff like seek out drug dealers and robbery suspects. Meanwhile, the sacrifices made in the name of public safety haven’t resulted in net public safety gains, and mass shootings (in particular) still routinely go unthwarted, no matter how much round-the-clock surveillance is in place.
Banjo says it will save lives — the only metric it claims to care about. So far, it can’t even seem to solve crimes.
While it’s still very early days for its implementation in Utah, we have no idea whether it has been useful in the real world. [Attorney General Chief of Staff Ric] Cantrell couldn’t identify a single case that Banjo’s technology had helped on. A public records request sent to Utah’s Highway Patrol requesting any case reports in which Banjo was used returned no documents. Police departments who have signed up for Banjo told Motherboard that they have not actually used it.
While it’s true the state won’t know how effective Banjo is until it deploys it, that doesn’t explain its willingness to deploy it all over the state before it has any idea how well it’s going to work and what negative side effects turning everything into fodder for surveillance software might produce. That’s incredibly irresponsible and it indicates the state clearly didn’t factor residents’ concerns into the equation.