On 29 October, the Samaritans, a suicide prevention and counselling charity registered in England and Wales, launched an application that monitor people’s public Tweets. The aim of the application is to identify a potentially suicidal Twitter user and notify her/his followers (who are using the necessary software) or potentially get her/him in touch with Samaritans. The targeted user is contacted later only by private messages.
According to the available information, the Samaritans Radar application uses Twitter, where it runs algorithm that looks for specific phrases, such as “depressed”, “help me” or “need someone to talk to”. The application is scanning the public tweets without consent of the Twitter users with the possibility to opt out the service (by sending a Twitter Direct Message). To sum up, Twitter users have two options how to quit the Samaritans Radar, opt out the service or make all their tweets private.
The controversy of the application is that it was aimed to save the user’s life and makes people listen to the problems of one another. But the privacy and data protection implications are outweighing the good intentions of the app developers. The press is calling for total withdrawal of this application from Twitter and a petition to shut down the app was also addressed to Twitter.
The question about the lawfulness of the app is discussed. On 4 November Joe Ferns, Director of Policy, Research and Development at Samaritans, said:
“We have taken the time to seek further legal advice on the issues raised. Our continuing view is that Samaritans Radar is compliant with the relevant data protection legislation for the following reasons: We believe that Samaritans are neither the data controller or data processor of the information passing through the app. All information identified by the app is available on Twitter, in accordance with Twitter’s terms and conditions. The app does not process private tweets. If Samaritans were deemed to be a data controller, given that vital interests are at stake, exemptions from data protection law are likely to apply…”
The Samaritan Radar is based on the idea that when something is in the public domain privacy issues and data protection rules are not taken into account. Public tweets are not personal data.
However, it could credibly be argued that the analysis/assumptions generated by the app are new personal data about the individuals in question, whose accuracy is far from certain and whose production, processing and communication to third parties has not been agreed to by the individuals in question.
Samaritans Radar Updates (4.11.2014)
Samaritans ‘suicide Twitter-sniffer’ BACKFIRES over privacy concerns (30.10.2014)
Samaritans Radar – serious privacy concerns raised (29.10.2014, regularly updated)
Shut down Samaritans Radar (petition)
Twitter’s Terms and Conditions
(Contribution by Angela Sobolciakova, EDRi intern)