Archive | October 2014

Samaritans Radar should be opt-in only

The Samaritans Radar app has had a disastrous launch: by initially refusing to allow individuals to opt out of being monitored and by responding badly to criticisms, the Samaritans have created a lot of bad feeling. The app is now working at a very large scale: the Samaritans report that after day 1 it was monitoring 900,000 Twitter feeds. Unfortunately, although allowing opt-outs is a big improvement, the way the app is being handled is still a mess and many people clearly don’t find the app’s monitoring acceptable. I will therefore argue that Samaritans Radar should be made opt-in only.

Monitoring public spaces

As I’ve said, I think that launching Samaritans Radar with no opt-out was inexcusable. An uproar was generated when the Samaritans initially refused to allow individuals to opt out and treated the public spaces of Twitter[1] with what looked like distain: arguing that “All the data used in the app is public, so user privacy is not an issue”. While these online spaces are public, they are also valued by many and are covered by norms of acceptable behaviour. As Mark Brown notes, “For some, Twitter is the only place they have felt able to meet others with mental health difficulties and to be honest about their true feelings.” Online spaces are important.

The way the Samaritans behaved would be viewed as unacceptable in an offline public space.[2] Imagine, for example, that I went into a busy local park and told users I’ll be monitoring what they do, storing records and alerts about their activity whether or not they like it – after all, everything they do in a public place is public. When people argue back, I tell them to think about issues of privacy in parks. This would not make me popular. At best, I think I’d be told to go away.

Not surprisingly, the Samaritans have received a lot of negative responses to their app launch and lot of people clearly view Samaritans Radar’s monitoring of public space unacceptable. I wouldn’t feel comfortable monitoring a public space after many people from the community had told me to stop, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for Samaritans Radar to continue monitoring Twitter after having had such a negative response. Changing the app to work on an opt-in basis – so that only those who want to be monitored are monitored – would be much more acceptable.

Opt-in and opt-out observation

I think that opt-out observation of public spaces can be acceptable in some circumstances, and when I was planning this post yesterday I was going to argue for Samaritans Radar’s work to just be made more overt.[3] However, opt-out monitoring by Samaritans Radar isn’t acceptable now. When I was trying to defend the potentially benefits of an opt-out project – saying that an opt-in project would be smaller scale – @MLBrook pointed out that when I say smaller scale I “mean it might have included just those who actually consented”. This argument for an opt-in approach is persuasive for two reasons. Firstly, given the response the app’s launch has had, I don’t think that Samaritans can take the fact that users don’t opt out as implied consent for monitoring (indeed, some people object to the Samaritans storing their details on an opt-out list). Secondly, the project is scooping up a lot of sensitive personal data (it will be collecting more the longer it runs for) and this type of project needs very careful handling. However, as well as the problems at launch, the Samaritans Radar mess continues today. For example:

  • @Endless_Psych reports that, after they sent a tweet to trigger Samaritans Radar, “Someone got a notification about the tweet. The next day.”
  • The Samaritans have still not made clear whether opting out from Samaritans Radar will stop the app from monitoring my Twitter feed or stop the Samaritans from collecting, storing and analysing data from my feed. The Samaritans statement re the introduction of an opt-out for individuals says that the opt-out is for “individuals who would not like their Tweets to appear in Samaritans Radar alerts” but doesn’t offer further information about the impact of an opt-out on their data collection and processing. They have since stated that opting out does stop monitoring – and I appreciate the prompt response to my question – but this should have been made clear from the start.
  • There is no clear way to report users who are abusing the app or get them blocked.
  • Samaritans have claimed – repeatedly and incorrectly – that people who don’t follow them can DM to opt out.

Given how badly things have been handled so far, I think the best thing for both the Samaritans and those they are trying to help would be for Samaritans Radar to start out opt-in only and on a much smaller scale.

I’ve covered problems around the launch of Samaritans Radar here. I’m posting this after a long day – let me know if you spot any typos, if anything seems unclear or if I’ve missed out a link I should have included. I should also say that I think the Samaritans are generally a great organisation and I’m sure Samaritans Radar was launched with good intentions; this makes what has happened with the app all the more disappointing, though.

Update 31/10: @Endless_Psych has updated me that “they got the notification [from Samaritans Radar] about two or so hours after I posted but they were asleep”. I’ve also updated the post to add the point that it’s not clear whether opting out from Samaritans Radar will stop monitoring, data collection etc.

Update 2 31/10: @J5nnRussell has clarified that opting out stops Samaritans Radar from monitoring your tweets. Post updated to reflect this.

[1] Sorry, I’m a geographer – I like spatial metaphors. I also like footnotes.

[2] I’m not arguing that there’s a clear online/offline divide, but talking about online and offline spaces seemed the clearest way to express my point in this blog post.

[3] To be open about my own biases, I have previously argued for and carried out online observation which has been opt-out rather than opt in (although I have done this in very different ways and on a very different scale to Samaritans Radar).

Problems with Samaritans Radar

The Samaritans Radar app is an interesting – and potentially valuable – idea. However, the app relies on the covert monitoring of Twitter users and will probably be collecting and processing lots of sensitive personal data. There is also the potential for the app to be used to target people when they are vulnerable. I will argue that the covert nature of the app’s monitoring and the lack of any apparent way for people being monitored to opt out are both unacceptable and that the Samaritans have not evidenced adequate safeguards against abuse.[1]

The app is presented as “a chance to help friends who may need support”. Some users will no doubt use it in this way. What the app actually is, though, is a means to get alerts when certain words or phrases crop up in the tweets of people a Twitter user chooses to follow (as long as their accounts aren’t private and they haven’t blocked me).[2] Monitoring is not transparent to those who are monitored: Samaritans make clear that “Samaritans Radar is activated discreetly and all alerts are sent to you alone…The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up to it”.[3] I can’t find any way to opt out of being monitored by the app – the decision about whether to use it is made solely by the user who is signing up for alerts about people they follow.

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”.[4] 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. It would be even more worrying if person Y found out about this and was upset but I didn’t offer any way for them to stop me from monitoring them or sending alerts.

There is also a real risk of harm here. People might, for example, feel less able to share their feelings and seek support on Twitter if this brings them a raft of well-meaning but unwanted contacts from followers or if they felt they were being surveilled in an oppressive way. As @Sectioned_ points out, an alert from the app “could seem like open encouragement to platitude-bomb someone when they’re feeling rubbish”. More worryingly, abusive people might use the app in order to find out when a target of theirs is feeling lousy: as @claireOT argues, “there’s a worrying lack of safeguards against ppl using the app to target vulnerable ppl”.[5] Even if someone is aware that they’re being targeted in this way and wants to stop it, I can see no way to opt out from being monitored. I also can’t see any way to report someone who’s using this app for abuse or to get them blocked from using the app.

The Samaritan’s Radar app is a nice idea, but the lack of any clear way to opt out seems inexcusable – and increases the likelihood of the app doing harm. I haven’t seen evidence of adequate safeguards against abuse of the app. If the app is popular, its launch will mean the covert monitoring of many Twitter accounts along with the collection, analysis and storage of a lot of sensitive personal data. It might be possible to justify this – and I’m sure the Samaritans have good intentions – but I haven’t seen anything like an adequate justification from the Samaritans.

UPDATE: Samaritans Radar is now covertly monitoring (or “supporting”, as they put it) 900,000 Twitter feeds. This is a large-scale monitoring, data collection and processing project, and really does need to have appropriate privacy and risk mitigation measures in place.

UPDATE 2: the Information Rights and Wrongs blog now has an excellent post on data privacy issues around Samaritans Radar. I now probably won’t write a post on data protection and the app – I don’t think I could do anything better.

Update 3 (30/10/14): Samaritans have announced that they will allow individuals to opt out from being monitored by the app. I have added strikethroughs to the post to reflect this.

I’ve tried to acknowledge sources here, but I may well have missed people making similar points about the app on social media. Please tell me, and I’ll add in appropriate links.

 I’ve kept this post brief-ish, but I also have a half-written post about data protection aspects of this an another looking at how issues like this are dealt with from the point of view of research ethics (I submitted an ethics form for some online ethnographic work not that long ago). I’ll try to write these up at some point – so there’s the excitement of discussions of data protection and research ethics still to come! I’d also like to write something about how this type of app might work in a more ethical, and less intrusive, way.


[1] I appreciate that people can leave Twitter or make their accounts private. However, people should not be forced to make their Twitter account less public in order to escape this type of monitoring.

[2] Though I imagine I could set up an anon sockpuppet account to follow anyone who blocked me and I still wanted to monitor.

[3] Clearly, some of those using the app may tell those they follow that they are doing so and some Twitter users may actually ask to be monitored. However, the app does not tell people that it is monitoring them.

[4] It is worth noting that much of the data collected will fall under the Data Protection Act’s definition of personal data – for example, I’m easily identifiable from my Twitter handle @JonMendel.

[5] I appreciate that an abuser can also just read a public Twitter feed, but this app is potentially making this far easier.