Samaritans Radar: questions from a research ethics point of view (post 1 of 2)

The Samaritans have emphasised the involvement of academics when trying to justify Samaritans Radar. The work that academics do is bound by a strict ethical framework and I’m therefore going to look at the questions that might be raised about Samaritans Radar if it were proposed as an academic social research project.[1] This will come in two posts (ethics forms can be long, and I don’t imagine many people want to read 2,000+ words on the topic in one go). I will argue that the Samaritans Radar would – or, at least, should – face serious ethical questions were it proposed as an academic project. While what Samaritans Radar is trying to do is very interesting, the way the project has been ran so far may severely limit what academics can do with the data it has generated.[2]

I’m not going to rehash discussions of data protection concerns around Samaritans Radar (others have covered this better than I could). However, a first thing to note is that an academic project is expected to have reasonable data protection measures in place: breaking data protection law would almost always be seen as unethical, both because the current law probably reflects important societal norms[3] and because breaking the law might leave individuals and institutions involved in the project facing risks such as prosecution.

Ethics forms always ask about consent, and so they should. Samaritans Radar involves observing lots of activity in an online public space, and therefore raises interesting questions around consent. In some cases, most would view observation of public spaces without opt-in consent as reasonable – for example, if I counted the cars passing my office window and heading towards the city centre during rush hour or analysed above-the-line Comment is Free posts, this would probably be seen as fairly unobjectionable. Other observations of public space get into more sensitive or personal-seeming areas, though, and may be seen as unacceptably intrusive – for example, it would probably be unacceptable for me to observe people entering and leaving local religious buildings without at least getting the congregations to agree to this.

Even where observation is seen as acceptable and opt-in consent is viewed as unnecessary, one would normally be expected to offer opt-out consent if anyone does object: for example, if someone saw me looking out of my office window to count cars and called me up to complain, it would probably be appropriate for me to offer to stop counting their car. Observing people who have actively said they don’t want to be observed is quite different from just assuming people are happy to be observed if they don’t object. I would view observation in these circumstances as unacceptable unless there is a very strong reason to carry out the project.

Initially, Samaritans Radar didn’t offer any opt-out to individuals. It appears this was technically possible for them to do (organisational accounts could be ‘white listed’) but they chose not to. A number of Twitter uses (including me) were unhappy about this. I would argue that it was unethical to monitor individuals who had strongly objected to monitoring, but not been offered any way to opt out. I would therefore have real ethical concerns about using these data at all – doing so risks using data that which subjects did not want collected, had no reasonable way of preventing from being collected[4] and would likely object to having processed/analysed.[5] I can’t see how this could be acceptable.

Samaritans Radar does now offer an opt-out, and the acceptability of this type of monitoring is a more complicated question – can one assume acquiescence to observation if people don’t object? In some online or offline spaces, I think that would be reasonable – again, if I were counting cars passing my office window or analysing above-the-line posts on Comment Is Free, I think this would be OK. On the other hand, in some cases monitoring without opt-in consent would seem unreasonably intrusive – for example, I don’t think it would be acceptable for me track below-the-line Comment Is Free posts in order to assess the mental state of commenters without getting informed consent. Samaritans Radar is actively collecting sensitive personal data.

One issue with taking the fact someone doesn’t opt-out as implying consent is whether those who are being monitored know that this is the case and therefore have the option to opt out (clearly, many monitored by Samaritans Radar don’t). If I was considering a proposal for running project like this on an opt-out basis, it would be reasonable to make monitoring much more overt: for example, the app could Tweet daily from those who have it installed to make clear that they’re using it to monitor those they follow. This would still be far from perfect – many would still be unaware they’re being monitored, or would want neither to be monitored nor to have their names on an opt-out list – but would be better than the current situation.[6]

I’m aware I’m looking at this with the benefit of hindsight, and I’m not sure what my answer would have been if – prior to launch – I’d been asked about running Samaritans Radar on an opt-out basis. Quantumplations asks “Was an opt in app ever considered until the initial backlash on Twitter? If so, why was it rejected?” From an ethical point of view, I think there would have needed to be a compelling reason to reject an opt-in model where informed consent could have been gained from all monitored users. I now think that Samaritans Radar should be opt-in only. The app is currently being used to monitor spaces where it is clearly unwelcome and to monitor people who – while not wanting to be on an opt-out list – don’t want to be monitored. I can’t see how this can be ethical.

For these reasons, I also don’t think using data resulting from current Samaritans Radar monitoring would be ethical. Once again, academics using these data would risk analysing data from people who have vocally refused consent to be monitored and who would likely object to their data being analysed in this way. They are also analysing data from a lot more people who are being monitored but – in part because the app doesn’t take all reasonable measures to inform monitored people –don’t know about this and don’t have the option of opting out.

One of the sad things about how Samaritans Radar has been run is that this may severely limit what academics can do with data coming from the project. I’m doubtful that it would be ethical to use the data generated so far at all. This is a real pity – this is a fascinating research topic, Samaritans Radar could have made a major contribution to driving research in the area forwards. Being bound by a tighter ethical framework might also have strengthened the project, and avoided some of the problems it has ran into.

This is the first post of two on ethical issues around Samaritans Radar. The second one is now (3/11) available here.

Update 3/11: Prof Jonathan Scourfield (who took part in the app launch) has blogged on the topic. He states that

The idea for the app came from Samaritans and digital agency Jam…When the development was already far advanced, I offered to contribute a lexicon of possible suicidal language, derived from our ongoing research on social media…we are not collecting any research data via Samaritans Radar”

[1] To be up-front about some of my own biases, I should say that I have previously observed online interactions as part of my research and hope to do so in future. I have also asked for data from social media companies for reanalysis in the past, though this never progressed to the point where I’d need to complete an ethics form.

[2] I appreciate that charities aren’t bound by the same norms as academics – and don’t think they should be – some of these ethical questions will be relevant to the Samaritans and others will be relevant to academics who have worked/are working on the Samaritans Radar project or who are thinking about using data resulting from the project.

[3] If anything, current law may not be strong enough to adequately reflect current societal concerns about privacy and data analytics. However, failing to meet the standards laid out in current law is likely to fall short of societal expectations.

[4] I don’t view expecting someone to leave Twitter or make their Twitter account private in order to stop monitoring by Samaritans Radar as reasonable. This would be like me telling a driver who objected to me counting their car that they should cycle instead in order to avoid being observed.

[5] For the record, I object to any analysis being carried out on data on me collected by Samaritans Radar.

[6] The way the app currently works seems over-cautious about the privacy of those who are in a position to give informed consent to run it – those installing the app – but far too casual about the privacy of those who are monitored.

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