Shut down Samaritans Radar

What do we want?

We are asking Twitter to protect the safety and privacy of Twitter users by shutting down the Samaritans Radar app. Twitter can do this by stopping the Samaritans’ software accessing Twitter users’ data.

What does the Samaritans Radar app do?

Samaritans Radar is a surveillance system that collects people’s tweets, analyses them to judge whether the person may be vulnerable or in distress, and then sends emails to people’s Twitter followers alerting them to that fact. This happens without the knowledge or consent of the people whose tweets are being collected and analysed by the Samaritans. As of 30 October 2014, Samaritans Radar was monitoring and analysing over 900,000 Twitter accounts.

What’s wrong with Samaritans Radar?

Samaritans Radar breaches people’s privacy by collecting, processing and sharing sensitive information about their emotional and mental health status. The Samaritans has no legitimate purpose to collect this information, let alone to share it with other unknown and untrusted people without the subject’s knowledge or consent.

The app makes people more vulnerable online. Anyone can sign up to receive an email when someone appears to be sensitive or in crisis. While this could be used legitimately by a friend to offer help, it also gives stalkers and bullies and opportunity to increase their levels of abuse at a time when their targets are especially down. Just as bad, not everyone apparently wanting to help may be able to do so effectively or has the person’s best interests at heart. Whether well-intentioned or not, Samaritans Radar goes behind vulnerable people’s backs to encourage and enable other people to make what will often be unwanted and harmful interventions in their lives.

Samaritans Radar makes Twitter a less comfortable and useful place for people with emotional and mental health problems. Groups of friends and often fragile networks of support have grown up on Twitter even though many people with mental health problems may feel exposed, have trouble expressing themselves or be wary of how other people will react to what they say. 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. Many people using the #SamaritansRadar hashtag have already said that they are doing this or will do so. This puts vulnerable people more at risk by separating them from their friends and online sources of support.

We have seen that the Samaritans Radar app is undermining people’s trust in the Samaritans as an organisation and discouraging some people from phoning the helpline when they are in crisis. This could have serious or possibly even fatal consequences for some people with mental health problems. It could also affect the Samaritans’ long-term ability to recruit volunteers and raise donations, thereby reducing their ability to support people in need.

Is Samaritans Radar lawful?

We believe that Samaritans Radar breaches the Data Protection Act in several ways. Jon Baines, a data protection and information policy expert, has written a detailed analysis of his concerns over the lawfulness of the project.

Why are we petitioning Twitter rather than the Samaritans?

Despite a huge amount of negative feedback, the Samaritans has failed to take effective action to address people’s concerns about the Samaritans Radar app. Twitter has a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to keep people using its platform safe and to ensure that other people using its data do so fairly and reasonably. Many people using the #SamaritansRadar hashtag have said that the app makes them feel less safe and less likely to use Twitter. This puts people who are already vulnerable further at risk by separating them from friends and sources of support online. Twitter has the power to shut down the Samaritans Radar app and restore people’s confidence that they can use Twitter safely without unwanted surveillance by the Samaritans and interventions from other people.

Isn’t the way that many companies use Twitter’s data just as bad as Samaritans Radar?

No. Samaritans Radar is the only Twitter app we know of that tries to make judgements about people’s emotional and mental health status and then shares that information with other people to encourage them to intervene in vulnerable people’s lives. This is very different from companies that try to work out people’s interests or how people use social media so that they can improve their advertising. Samaritans Radar specifically targets vulnerable people without their knowledge or consent and shares its information with people that, intentionally or otherwise, may add to their problems.

Samaritans Radar lets people opt out. Isn’t that good enough?

No. People who don’t know about Samaritans Radar will still have data about their emotional status and mental health collected and analysed by the Samaritans and shared with other people. For many people who know about Samaritans Radar, opting out is not acceptable as this means that the Samaritans still collects data about their identity and opted-out status. The only acceptable way that Samaritans Radar could work would be for people to explicitly opt in to having their data collected, analysed and shared in this way.

People’s tweets are public. Why can’t the Samaritans or anyone else do what they like with them?

Even though people’s tweets are public, there are still many ways in which they could be used that are unethical and/or unlawful. And public tweets have different degrees of visibility. But Samaritans Radar doesn’t just collect public tweets. It analyses them to create new data, makes judgements about people’s emotional and mental health status, and then shares that new data with other people. This happens without the knowledge or consent of the people that are being monitored.

Are you anti the Samaritans or Twitter?

Quite the opposite. The Samaritans does important and necessary work helping people in crisis with its volunteer-run phone support lines. We fully back and respect that work. We also greatly value Twitter as a way to chat and connect with other people online. We believe that Samaritans Radar is a misguided project that damages trust in the Samaritans and Twitter and that both organisations would benefit from shutting down the app. But ultimately, even if Twitter and the Samaritans don’t agree with that, we believe that they have a responsibility to put the safety, privacy and very clearly expressed wishes of vulnerable people first.

Where can I get more information?

We disagree with many of the things that the Samaritans say about Samaritans Radar but nonetheless a good place to start is on their website.

Several people have blogged about Samaritans Radar. Here are a few:

Latentexistence values Twitter for the support it provides online but thinks that apps such as Samaritans Radar “must obtain full consent from the person being monitored”.

Paul Bernal, an IT law academic, has written about how Samaritans Radar misunderstands privacy and publicness.

Adrian Short, a technology writer and creator of this petition, has written about the risks of Samaritans Radar, unethical ways Twitter data can be used and a call for the app to be shut down.

Data protection expert Jon Baines has written a detailed analysis of his concerns over the lawfulness of the project.

What else can I do to help?

Please do not sign up to use the Samaritans Radar app. This will add the Twitter accounts of everyone you follow to the Samaritans’ surveillance system and undermine their privacy. If you are already using the app, please deauthorise it.

You can help to spread the word by sharing this petition with your friends.

We’d love to hear more people’s views and experiences with Samaritans Radar so if you’ve got a blog please write something and let us know about it.

If you’re still using Twitter, come and join the discussion there by using the #SamaritansRadar hashtag.

Thank you for your support.

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    Adrian Short started this petition with a single signature, and won with 1,262 supporters. Start a petition to change something you care about.