Samaritans Radar under fire over privacy concerns

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Recently rolled out app from Samaritans dubbed ‘Samaritans Radar’ is facing an immediate backlash over unintended privacy concerns from privacy activists who are calling out for the app’s effective shutdown.

The new web app, launched last week, targeted predominantly at the 15 to 35 age group, uses a special algorithm to monitor Twitter posts with specific keywords and explicit phrases like “kill myself” or “want to die,” as well as “end it all,” “sleep and never wake up,” or “I’m worthless” that may indicate someone is distress or at risk for suicide.

Users who sign up for the app will get notified through an email alert, if someone they follow tweets any such alleged statements, with a link to the tweet that raised the alarm as well as guidance on the best way of providing support to the tweeter which includes getting in contact with the person through a tweet, sending an email or text message “gently asking how they’re doing,” or making a call to the person on the phone.

Privacy activist, Adrian Short, has launched a Change.org petition against the new Samaritans Radar app accusing that the app “breaches people’s privacy by collecting, processing and sharing sensitive information about their emotional and mental health status.”

Short pointed out that even though Samaritans Radar allows people to opt out, the app will still continue to collect their data.

Short noted that the app’s data collection procedure breaches people’s privacy and that it could be used by stalkers and bullies to target vulnerable ones.

Defending the app’s existence, Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research and development at the Samaritans, said “We know from research that vulnerable individuals can go online to call for help, in the hope that someone will reach out to them, so we developed Samaritans Radar particularly for Twitter users who want to be able to support their friends.

“The App has had a positive response so far, with over 3,000 people signed up as subscribers to date. Since launch, almost 20,000 people have mentioned the App, helping #samaritansradar trend on Twitter for two days. We will take on board any feedback we receive as we develop the App further and are taking very seriously the concerns raised by some Twitter users regarding possible data protection and privacy issues relating to the Application,” Ferns wrote.

He concluded saying that the company is looking into the details of the issues raised, including working with the relevant regulatory authorities, and will continue to take action as needed to address these concerns appropriately going forward.