Samaritans Controversy and Privacy: Charities Should Lead the Way

JulesTowards the end of October, Samaritans launched its Radar app for Twitter, an app designed to spot and reduce mental health issues through the medium of social media. Users sign up and this permits the app to track every account that the signee follows: if any of these display signs of depression (through the use of certain keywords), an email is sent to the person who has signed up, and they then act however they wish to, for instance contacting the user at risk.

The app has attracted a wave of reaction, with some applauding Samaritans for using modern technology to continue to meet its charitable aims, whilst others have expressed several concerns. The app has been criticised for having poor design and overriding existing support networks, whilst elsewhere worries have been expressed regarding its effectiveness – and the charity has even been accused of paternalism.

This is because the app changes the Samaritans format: the charity usually offers users the chance to call a helpline anonymously and in confidence, whereas Radar adopts a much more proactive stance. Some might claim such a hands-on approach is needed at a time where the UK is suffering from a mental health crisis: recent research has shown that this country is the loneliest in Europe, and suicide rates are worryingly high, especially amongst men.

However, the broader issue, and maybe the most important one for the charitable sector to consider, is the issue of privacy. Users are visibly concerned, so much so that an online petition has been launched to shut down the service. It is clear that Radar enables Samaritans to track people without their consent, and without consultation, storing data, it seems, throughout.

Such a database of sensitive information is always liable to being hacked: if enormous organisations such as NASA cannot prevent breaches of data, then no charity can guarantee confidentiality of information either. On a much more immediate scale, another aspect of the privacy concern is that the app can be used to more malicious ends; for instance stalkers and bullies can use it to detect depression and in such a scenario, harm to individuals could be caused.

Samaritans has responded by stating that the tweets that they are tracking are already public, and that other apps such as Hootsuite are also tracking people’s tweets. However, no other app is tracking and storing tweets containing sensitive mental health information and sending alerts to users who could have no personal relation to the person at risk.

Radar is an example of data collection which has obviously been initiated with good intentions, as opposed, for instance, to GCHQ stocking millions of innocent people’s video chats (including a high proportion of sexually explicit material). However, Samaritans must be aware that privacy should come before any other consideration, especially whilst dealing with such vulnerable people and their information. If charities fail to protect privacy, this will undermine trust, which in the long term will affect their overall charitable aims. It is key that a sector which holds so much sensitive information and personal details puts this at the forefront of its concerns, and whilst technological advance is important, charities should be exemplary at a time when privacy is being undermined in many areas of our lives.

What do you think about the Radar app? We’d love to hear.

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