After backlash, suicide prevention charity pulls app

U.K. organization Samaritans launched the Samaritans Radar app in late October to warn users about troubling tweets. Critics quickly raised privacy concerns.

Would you be OK with having someone monitor your tweets for signs of suicidal thoughts?

As it turns out, many people were absolutely not OK with it in the case of the Samaritans Radar app. The U.K suicide prevention charity Samaritans launched the app in late October with the goal of identifying problematic words and phrases in tweets and reporting its findings back to concerned users.

On Friday, the organization deactivated all Samaritans Radar user accounts and shut down the app. It also issued a statement that read, in part:

Samaritans has a long history of encouraging people to look out for one another and of finding innovative ways of encouraging people to talk about what is troubling them. However, we need to think further about how we can take those principles and use them to help make the online environment safer for vulnerable people.

The app worked like this: A user signed up for an account on the app, which then gave the app access to the tweets of everyone he or she followed, regardless of whether those people consented to the monitoring. If one of those people tweeted something suspicious (according to the BBC, flagged terms included “help me” or “hate myself”), an alert would be emailed to the user who had signed up for the account.

Just a few days after launch, the app was monitoring nearly 2 million accounts, according to the BBC.

Information policy activist Adrian Short started a petition urging Twitter to shut down the app. He wrote:

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.

A few days after the launch of the app, Samaritans gave people the opportunity to opt out of being monitored. Short and other critics said that didn’t offer much solace to people who didn’t even know they were being monitored.

In its Friday statement, Samaritans Executive Director of Policy, Research, and Development Joe Ferns wrote that the organization would “be holding a series of consultation events as well as continuing to gather views via an online survey from as wide a range of people as possible” in the wake of the shutdown of the app.


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