So #SamaritansRadar is one of those topics where wiser and more eloquent people have already written about it at such length that there’s nothing much that I can add other than collating a handful of pertinent blogposts.
If you have no idea what this is all about, then in a nutshell: The mental health charity Samaritans launched an app that will trawl through the tweets of every Twitter user you follow, and sends you an email if the app’s text analysis software decides that one of these users if tweeting in a way that indicates that s/he is feeling “troubled” (which appears to be a euphemism for “suicidal”).
The Samaritans describe their project here, and defend it here.
The petition to have the app shut down outlines several of the many objections to this concept. Takeaway quote: “Samaritans Radar makes Twitter a less comfortable and useful place for people with emotional and mental health problems. (….) The simple fact that the Samaritans — an organisation which they may otherwise trust and have sensitive conversations with offline — may now be collecting and analysing their tweets could be enough for some people to censor what they say or to withdraw entirely. (…) This puts vulnerable people more at risk by separating them from their friends and online sources of support.”
Jon Mendel provides another shortish summary of the problems caused by the app. Takeaway quote: “Samaritans argue that “All the data used in the app is public, so user privacy is not an issue. Samaritans Radar analyses the Tweets of the people you follow, which are public Tweets”. This is a bad argument. By way of analogy, my office window looks out on a public street – whatever people do there is public. There would still, though, be privacy issues if I installed a video camera in my window to tape what people did outside; there would be bigger issues if, say, I allowed interested parties to subscribe to alerts when person X or Y walks past my window drunk.”
Paul Bernal’s blogpost deals not only with this specific issue, but also with the general topic of the widespread wooly thinking that fails to distinguish between the many shades of grey between our “public” and “private” activities. Takeaway quote: “[The Samaritans’ reasoning is logical] only if you think that ‘private-public’ is a two-valued, black-and-white issue. Either something is ‘public’ and available to all, or it’s ‘private’ and hidden. Privacy, both in the ‘real’ world and on Twitter, doesn’t work like that. It’s far more complex and nuanced than that – and anyone who thinks in those simple terms is fundamentally misunderstanding privacy.”
Blogger Latent Existence makes many of the same points (albeit with a really daft background/font colour scheme (sorry)). Takeaway quote: “Are you the kind of person that sneaks up to people’s private conversations to monitor them just because they’re in a public place? Because that doesn’t tell me I don’t know how things work, that tells me that you don’t know how society works.”
Blogger jemina2013 quotes some dubious statistics about the causes of suicide, but is well worth reading for her viciously accurate dissection of the Samaritans hand-washing and accusatory defence of their app. Takeaway quote: “The idea [that] there are some of [us] who use twitter as a “broadcast” platform and they are causing all the problems is an interesting one to say the list. Apparently we don’t have friends on Twitter, it is simply a way we “promote our brand” as we broadcast our thoughts. Proper Twitter users only talk to people they have vetted, and have met on at least three occasions in the presence of a chaperone and responsible adult.”
Charlotte Walker does an excellent job of constructing the real-life analogy to #SamaritansRadar, showcasing how people (yet again) defend forms of online behaviour and monitoring that would be roundly and unaniousmly condemned in they occurred in real life. Takeaway quote: “Mr Sam wants to make it easier for vulnerable people to be watched. For their own good.”
Adrian Short (very legimately) abandons the scrupulously level-headed approach in favour of justified indignation at a charity which refuses to listen to the people they’re supposed to be aiding. Takeaway quote: “The Samaritans have set up an opt-out for people who don’t want their data to be collected, which means that the Samaritans are now collecting the online identities of people concerned about having their data collected by the Samaritans. (…) The spectacle of watching vulnerable people concerned about their privacy having to publicly petition a charity to stop spying on them is nothing short of revolting.”