So farewell then #samaritansradar…

…or should that be au revoir?

With an interestingly timed announcement (18:00 on a Friday evening) Samaritans conceded that they were pulling their much-heralded-then-muchcriticised app “Samaritans Radar”, and, as if some of us didn’t feel conflicted enough criticising such a normally laudable charity, their Director of Policy Joe Ferns managed to get a dig in, hidden in what was purportedly an apology:

We are very aware that the range of information and opinion, which is circulating about Samaritans Radar, has created concern and worry for some people and would like to apologise to anyone who has inadvertently been caused any distress

So, you see, it wasn’t the app, and the creepy feeling of having all one’s tweets closely monitored for potentially suicidal expressions, which caused concern and worry and distress – it was all those nasty people expressing a range of information and opinion. Maybe if we’d all kept quiet the app could have continued on its unlawful and unethical merry way.

However, although the app has been pulled, it doesn’t appear to have gone away

We will…be testing a number of potential changes and adaptations to the app to make it as safe and effective as possible for both subscribers and their followers

There is a survey at the foot of this page which seeks feedback and comment. I’ve completed it, and would urge others to do so. I’ve also given my name and contact details, because one of my main criticisms of the launch of the app was that there was no evidence that Samaritans had taken advice from anyone on its data protection implications – and I’m happy to do so for no fee. As Paul Bernal says, “[Samaritans] need to talk to the very people who brought down the app: the campaigners, the Twitter activists and so on”.

Data protection law’s place in our digital lives is of profound importance, and of profound interest to me. Let’s not forget that its genesis in the 1960s and 1970s was in the concerns raised by the extraordinary advances that computing brought to data analysis. For me some of the most irritating counter-criticism during the recent online debates about Samaritans Radar was from people who equated what the app did to mere searching of tweets, or searching for keywords. As I said before, the sting of this app lay in the overall picture – it was developed, launched and promoted by Samaritans – and in the overall processing of data which went on – it monitored tweets, identified potentially worrying ones and pushed this information to a third party, all without the knowledge of the data subject.

But also irritating were comments from people who told us that other organisations do similar analytics, for commercial reasons, so why, the implication went, shouldn’t Samaritans do it for virtuous ones? It is no secret that an enormous amount of analysis takes place of information on social media, and people should certainly be aware of this (see Adrian Short’s excellent piece here for some explanation), but the fact that it can and does take place a) doesn’t mean that it is necessarily lawful, nor that the law is impotent within the digital arena, and b) doesn’t mean that it is necessarily ethical. And for both those reasons Samaritans Radar was an ill-judged experiment that should never have taken place as it did. If any replacement is to be both ethical and lawful a lot of work, and a lot of listening, needs to be done.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.


Filed under Data Protection, social media

7 responses to “So farewell then #samaritansradar…

  1. “For me some of the most irritating counter-criticism during the recent online debates about Samaritans Radar was from people who equated what the app did to mere searching of tweets, or searching for keywords. ”

    Yes, me too. I saw this argument particularly from journalists, like Neal Mann, who instinctively regard any sort of privacy dimension to public domain information as an attack on free speech. Ironically, the attack on free speech comes more from the direction of the chilling effect. Article 8 is not always the enemy of Article 10. Often the two go together.

  2. Pingback: Not Listening: Blog Round-Up On The Awful #SamaritansRadar App | Quiet Riot Girl

  3. What if they bring it back with a client-side implementation, i.e. the people who want to sign up for alerts run an app on their phone etc and the scanning happens there. My initial feeling is that this would both stop Samaritans being the data controller and bring it within the “personal use” exemption.

    • When I first heard about the app I thought that was how it was intended to work. I’m not convinced though that it would necessarily absolve them of data controller status: the app would still presumably be in Samaritans’ name, and be for the intended furtherance of their aims – I think there would be an argument that they still determined the purpose for which and the manner in which the personal data were processed (jointly with users). It might well turn out though that this will be considered as part of any relaunch – and the ICO’s guidance on Privacy in Mobile Apps does say “if you are distributing an app whose code purely runs on the mobile device and does not collect or transfer data elsewhere, then you are unlikely to be a data controller with regard to that app”.

      As for the domestic purposes exemption, I would have great doubts that this could or should apply in the circumstances you describe: it only applies to the processing of personal data by an individual “only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes)”. I can’t see how covert monitoring of a third party’s tweets with the apparent purpose of intervening regarding their mental health could possibly attract the exemption. That said, the ICO regularly extends the exemption far beyond what I see as its limits.

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  5. Pingback: ICO confirm they are considering enforcement action over #samaritansradar app | informationrightsandwrongs

  6. Pingback: ICO: Samaritans Radar failed to comply with Data Protection Act | informationrightsandwrongs

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