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Banjo Founder Damien Patton

Source: Wally Skalij / Getty

About a decade ago, Damien Patton co-founded the social media surveillance company Banjo, which has gone on to partner with law enforcement for lucrative surveillance system contracts. Although Patton and his company have become a sort of success story, due to much coverage of him being a teen runaway, the whole story wasn’t revealed until a OneZero report published on Tuesday.

According to transcripts of courtroom testimony, sworn statements and more than 1,000 pages of records, Patton was apart of white supremacist groups as a teenager. He was even involved in the shooting of a synagogue back in 1990.

According to a grand jury testimony that eventually led to the conviction of two of his associates, a 17-year-old Patton explained that he was involved with the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On June 9, 1990, a month before Patton’s 18th birthday, he joined a Klan leader in taking a semi-automatic TEC-9 pistol and driving to a synagogue in a Nashville suburb. With Patton in the driver’s seat, the Ku Klux Klan member fired rounds onto the synagogue, destroying a street-facing window and shattering glass near the building’s administrative offices. Nobody was injured or killed in the incident and eventually, with the help of a second Klan member, Patton fled the state.

Ultimately, Patton was charged with and pled guilty to acts of juvenile delinquency because of the incident. The two Klansmen were charged with conspiracy to “prevent or hinder” the free exercise of someone’s constitutional rights, which is a federal hate crime, and an accessory after the fact.

Through his testimonies, Patton admitted to white supremacist talks and meetings saying, “We believe that the Blacks and the Jews are taking over America, and it’s our job to take America back for the white race.”

Even when Patton joined the Navy as an adult, he continued to associate himself with skinheads, which he described as “the foot soldiers for groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations.”

Patton also detailed in his court testimonies an incident in the early 1990s when he and Leonard William Armstrong — who was the Grand Drago of the Tennessee White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — drove into midtown Nashville and harassed a group of Black men.

We all sat out on the Street [sic] for a while just showing a massive force of White Supremacists [when] a group of Black men in a black Suzuki Samurai drove up and I started to ridicule them,” Patton said. “I told them that I had a ticket for them to go back to Africa and I told them about having a can of grease for their hair and they got pretty upset and we thought they brandished a weapon and so all the men — all the boy Skinheads… chased the Suzuki Samurai but we lost it.”

Now, at age 47, Patton denounces the beliefs of his past. In a statement to OneZero he said:

“32 years ago I was a lost, scared, and vulnerable child. I won’t go into detail, but the reasons I left home at such a young age are unfortunately not unique; I suffered abuse in every form. I did terrible things and said despicable and hateful things, including to my own Jewish mother, that today I find indefensibly wrong, and feel extreme remorse for. I have spent most of my adult lifetime working to make amends for this shameful period in my life.”

Patton went on to say that after living in the streets, he was “taken in by skinhead gangs and white supremacist organizations.”

“Since then, I have tried and failed to completely accept and come to terms with how I, a child of Jewish heritage, became part of such a hateful, racist group,” he said. “One thing I have done, through therapy and outreach, I have learned to forgive that 15 year old boy who, despite the absence of ideological hate, was lured into a dark and evil world. For all of those I have hurt, and that this revelation will hurt, I’m sorry. No apology will undo what I have done.”

Despite Patton’s apology, his company’s association with law enforcement still raises concerns. According to OneZero, Patton’s Banjo app initially started as an “‘event-detection engine,’ which, according to company claims, aggregates more than 1 billion public social media accounts and organizes their posts by time and location. Initially envisioned as a public-facing ‘friend-finding’ social media app that would connect people by interests and location, an early version of the company raised nearly $1 million in the weeks following its 2010 debut.”

The company soon started partnering with law enforcement after the 2013 Boston Bombing. One Zero reports:

“A recent patent assigned to Banjo explains how the app can use location-based search terms, such as a street or business name, to aggregate audio and video from nearby public social media posts as a way to detect ‘events’ that include ‘fire, police response, mass shooting, traffic accident, natural disaster, storm, active shooter, concerts, protests, etc.’ Banjo’s algorithm thus purports to allow law enforcement agents to watch and respond to these events in real time.”

Although something like this might be beneficial in instances of terrorist attacks, privacy experts have brought attention to the hidden racial biases in the kinds of A.I. systems that Banjo uses. The fact that the company’s co-founder has a white supremacist past doesn’t ease concerns that he’s partnering with law enforcement, a group that also has their share of white supremacist associations. Patton’s racist history wasn’t brought up until now due to a FBI agent’s misspelling of his name in an initial affidavit involving his testimony.

Folks on social media have already begun pointing out Banjo’s partnership with law enforcement and its founder’s white supremacist past.

 

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah is one state whose officials awarded Patton’s company a sole-source, “$750,000 contract to provide massive real-time surveillance of 911 calls, social media and traffic cameras.” Banjo also signed a $20.7 million contract with the state.

Now with Patton’s past being revealed, the Utah Attorney General’s Office plans to “fully review” the contract and a more detailed statement is on the way.

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