Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Samaritans’ Twitter app

The Samaritans recently launched a Twitter app (Radar) which searches your followers’ (public) tweets for phrases that might indicate they need help.  If it finds a match, it sends you email from the Samaritans suggesting that there might be a problem and that you might want to look into it.  It’s a noble and worthwhile idea, but they haven’t thought it through.

There are some serious and pretty fundamental problems.  First, your followers don’t know that their tweets are being scanned and they are being profiled.  Second, the app might lead people to draw conclusions about a follower that either aren’t true or which – even if true – that follower didn’t want to express to you.  It can change the nature of the relationship between a tweeter and her followers without the follower’s consent or even knowledge.  I follow a few people I consider friends, but I also follow a lot of strangers.  I don’t think I’d appreciate being contacted by a stranger to ham-fistedly tell me not to do anything stupid.  There’s an opt-out option, but this itself is problematic. For one thing, you need to know about the service in order to opt out of it. For another, opting out requires you to give your details to The Samaritans. I don’t want them (or anyone who steals that data) to know that I don’t want people to know if I’m depressed!

Worst of all is how Radar will be used in the hands of trolls and other bullies.  The app is telling them when their targets might be at a low ebb.  We know that this sort of information is like diamonds to trolls.  It’s a dream come true.  We know that they will leap on and try to exploit any perceived weakness, particularly emotional and psychological distress.

This seems like an extraordinary oversight from an organisation that does this kind of thing for a living.  The Samaritans say the app took more than a year to develop (how?) and it’s very strange that nobody thought through the implications in all that time.  Fascinatingly, there’s a privacy statement on the Radar site.  It is concerned only with the privacy of the person using the app.  It doesn’t say whether the Samaritans will retain information about people their app flags as needing help, for example.  It actually boasts as a benefit that your followers won’t know you’ve signed them up for this service without consent.

The motivation behind Radar is compassionate and worthwhile, but the implementation is flawed from the outset.  In fact, it’s conceptually terrible from the ground up and I suspect it’s going to end up doing more harm than good.

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