SALT LAKE CITY — How do you assess a computer algorithm for racial and religious bias?
That is one of the tasks now in front of Utah auditor John Dougall’s office following news Monday that he and his team will perform an audit of embattled event detection company Banjo following revelations company founder and CEO Damien Patton had ties to a white supremacist group and acts of hate-motivated violence as a teenager.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office announced last week that an audit already planned for the company was being moved up and an appropriate, third-party contractor was being sought to conduct the assessment. That review will not only include evaluations of personal privacy protections stipulated in the state’s contract with Banjo, but will also be looking for any evidence of racial or religious bias in work already performed by the company.
Last summer, the state struck a $21 million contract with Banjo to aid first responders and law enforcement investigators in detecting incidents and crimes. The company says its technology can provide critical information and investigative direction by constantly gathering and processing massive amounts of data from multiple sources, including networks of video surveillance cameras, 911 call centers and emergency vehicle data that can be leveraged to get first responders to incidents faster and help solve crimes by saving police hours of old-fashioned detective work.
Dozens of Utah municipal agencies also entered into agreements with Banjo under state preferred-provider agreements. The state put its principal contract on hold following revelations of Patton’s past and Banjo has since announced it stopped processing information related to its Utah clients pending the audit’s outcome.
Dougall said work was underway to form a committee that would assist in identifying what types of expertise would be needed to appropriately evaluate the work Banjo has already performed which includes the use of complex computer algorithms to “see” and evaluate the various data streams it processes.
“Over the last few years we’ve become familiar with addressing data privacy audits,” Dougall said. “But, we’ve never been called on to approach anything to determine an algorithmic bias.”
Dougall said he anticipates the effort will require experts from academia, the private sector and possibly law enforcement and may take from six to 12 months to complete.
Court records and federal hate crime investigation documents detailing Patton’s association with a Ku Klux Klan faction and his involvement in violent actions directed at a religious group were first reported by online forum Medium’s technology news outlet OneZero on last week. After becoming aware of the reporting, the facts of which Patton is not contesting, Reyes’ office announced suspension of the state’s contract with the company and called for further review.
At 17 years old, Patton was involved with a faction of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in a drive-by shooting of a Nashville synagogue on June 9, 1990. According to court records, Patton was driving the vehicle on that day as a Klan leader shot out windows of the synagogue with a semi-automatic weapon. No one was injured in the incident, but the gunfire was directed at a building not far from where the congregation’s rabbi was at the time.