Samaritans Radar: misunderstanding privacy and ‘publicness’

The furore over the launch of the Samaritans Radar app has many dimensions: whether it’s ethical, whether it will help, whether it will chill – putting vulnerable people off using Twitter, whether it’s legal – there are huge data protection issues – are just a start. Many excellent pieces have been written about it from all these angles, and they almost all leave me thinking that the whole thing is misconceived, however positive its motivations may be.

I’m not going to go over much of these, but want to look at one particular angle where it seems to me that the creators of the app have made a fundamental misunderstanding. To recap, once someone authorises the Samaritans Radar app, that app will automatically scan the tweets of all the people that person follows, looking for signs in those tweets of potentially worrying words or phrases: triggers that suggest that the tweeter may be at risk. The tweeter does not know that their tweets are being scanned, as it’s only the person who’s authorised the app whose consent has been sought – and it’s important to remember that we don’t generally have control over who follows us. Yes, we can block people, but that often seems an overly aggressive act. I very rarely block, for example.

The logic behind the Samaritans Radar approach to privacy is simple: tweets are ‘public’, therefore they’re fair game to be scanned and analysed. Their response to suggestions that this might not be right is that people always have the option of making their twitter accounts private – thus effectively locking themselves out of the ‘public’ part of Twitter. On the surface this is logical – but only if you think that ‘private-public’ is a two-valued, black-and-white issue. Either something is ‘public’ and available to all, or it’s ‘private’ and hidden. Privacy, both in the ‘real’ world and on Twitter, doesn’t work like that. It’s far more complex and nuanced than that – and anyone who thinks in those simple terms is fundamentally misunderstanding privacy.

The two extremes are fairly obvious. If you sit in a TV studio on a live programme being broadcast to millions, everything you say is clearly public. If you’re in a private, locked room with one other person, and have sworn them to secrecy, what you say is clearly private. Between the two, however, there is a whole spectrum, and defining precisely where things fit is hard. You can have an intimate, private conversation in a public place – whispering to a friend in a pub, for example. Anyone who’s been to a football match, or been on a protest march, knows theoretically that it’s a public place, but might well have private conversations, whether wisely or not. Chatting around the dinner table when you don’t know all the guests – where would that fit in? In law, we can analyse what we call a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’, but it’s not always an easy analysis – and many people who might be potentially interested in the Samaritans should not be expected to understand the nuances of the law, or even the technicalities of Twitter.

On Twitter, too, we have very different expectations of how ‘visible’ or obscure what we tweet might be. We’re not all Stephen Fry, with millions of followers and an expectation that everything we write is read by everyone. Very much the opposite. We know how many followers we have – and some might assume, quite reasonably, that this is a fair representation of how many people might see our Tweet. It’s very different having 12 followers to having 12 million – and there are vastly more at the bottom end. Indeed, analysis at the end of 2013 suggested that 60% of active Twitter accounts have fewer than 100 followers, and 97% have fewer than 1000. That, to start with, suggests that most Twitter users might quite reasonably imagine that their tweets are only seen by a relatively small number of people – particularly as at any time only a fraction of those who follow you may be online and bother to read your tweet.

Further, not all tweets are equally visible – and experienced tweeters should know that. There are ways to make your tweets a little more intimate, and ways to make them more easily visible. If you tweet in response to someone, and leave their twitter tag at the start of the tweet, it will only appear on the timelines of people that follow both you and the person you are responding.  That’s why people sometimes put a ‘.’ in front of the tag.

A tweet like this, for example, would only be immediately visible to myself and the first tweeter named, and people who follow both of us, which is not likely to be a very large number.

Screen Shot 2014-11-01 at 09.44.00

If I had put a ‘.’ (or indeed any other characters) in front of @ABeautifulMind1, it would have been visible to all of the 9,000+ people who follow me. I made the decision not to do that – choosing to limit the visibility of the tweet. Having a semi-private conversation in a very public forum. Of course other people could find the tweet, but it would be harder – just as other people could hear a conversation on a public street, but it would be harder.

You can do the reverse, and try to make your tweet more rather than less visible. Adding a hashtag, for example, highlights the tweet to people following that hashtag – live tweeting my anger at BBC Question Time by adding the hashtag #bbcqt, for example. I could mention the name of a prominent tweeter, in the hope that they would read the tweet and choose to re-tweet it to their thousands or millions of followers. I could even ‘direct-message’ someone asking them to retweet my tweet as a special favour. All of these things can and do change the visibility – and, in effect, the publicness of the tweet.

Some people will understand all this. Some people won’t. Some people will have the two-valued idea about privacy that seems to underlie the Samaritans Radar logic – but, by both their thoughts and their actions, most people are unlikely to. We don’t all guard our thoughts on Twitter – indeed, that’s part of its attraction and part of its benefit for people with mental health issues, or indeed people potentially interested in the services of the Samaritans. Many people use twitter for their private conversations in the pub – and that’s great. Anyone who uses Twitter often, and anyone with any understanding of vulnerable people should know that – and see beyond the technical question of whether a tweet is ‘public’ or not.

The Samaritans responded to some of these questions, after their initial and depressing ‘you can lock your account’ response, by suggesting that people could join a ‘white list’ that says their tweets should not be scanned by Samaritans Radar – but that doesn’t just fail to solve the real issue, it might even exacerbate them. First of all, you have to be aware that you’re being scanned in order to want to be on the white list. Secondly, you’re adding yourself to a list – and not only is that list potentially vulnerable (both to misuse and to being acquired, somehow, by people with less than honourable motives), but the very idea of being added to yet another list is off-putting in the extreme. Anyone with negative experiences of the mental health services, for example, would immediately worry that being on that list marks you out as ‘of interest’. We don’t like lists, and with good reason.

At the very least, the system should be the other way around – you should have to actively ‘opt-in’ to being scanned. Having an opt-in system would be closer to the Samaritans’ role: the person would say ‘please, watch me, look after me’, as though they were phoning Samaritans. Even then, it’s far from perfect, as a decision to let people watch you at one point may not be relevant later. People’s minds change, their sensitivity changes, their level of trust changes. They should be able to revoke that decision to be watched – but even making them do that could be a negative. Why should it be up to them to say ‘stop scanning me’? With sensitive, vulnerable people, that could be yet another straw on the camel’s back.

Personally, I’d like the Samaritans to withdraw the app and have a rethink. This isn’t just a theoretical exercise, or a bit of neat technology – these are real issues for real people. It needs sensitivity, it needs care, it needs a willingness to admit ‘Oh, we hadn’t realise that, and we were wrong.’ With Samaritans Radar, I think the Samaritans have really got it wrong, in many ways. The privacy and publicness issue is just one of them. It does, however, add weight to the feeling that this whole idea was misconceived.

25 thoughts on “Samaritans Radar: misunderstanding privacy and ‘publicness’

  1. […] Each of these twitter users are likely to be followed by a variety of people – some of whom they know, some of whom they don’t, and a very large number on the whole scale in between. Although tweets from accounts which are not locked can be easily read by any individual, everyone is different in how they choose to use Twitter (as a balance of broadcast or engage), and with individual tweets, they make decisions about how public or accessible they choose to make tweets (be that in conversation, using hashtags). (EDIT – Paul Bernal has written a great post about this here) […]

    • That is indeed the question – and one of the reasons the creators of the app (who sold it to the Samaritans) are keen for publicity. There could be many similar versions working on different key words and phrases, for very different motives.

  2. Great read. Couple of questions. If this app can do it, then where’s the limit on who will do it next? I wonder if it’s not just worth asking the Sams to stop, but also asking, Dear Twitter, do you really want to permit this invasive use of the site data?

    And second, I missed the very start of this – how did twitter users find out about it at all – might there already be other similar apps out there being used, of which we’re not aware?

    [“You can have an intimate, private conversation in a public place – whispering to a friend in a pub, for example..”] Feels like my favourite local, just switched on CCTV in every part of the pub, with audio. And might broadcast to my Mum at home…

    • Both good questions. To answer the first, that’s one of the reasons there’s a petition directed at Twitter about this – and also why people are pursuing the issue with the Information Commissioner’s Office as a breach of Data Protection law. If either of these approaches works, it could put off further related developments. To answer the second, the Samaritans made a bit of a song and dance about it, very proud of the new app – but part of that, I suspect was because the creators of the app want to sell similar products to people other than the Samaritans. The same logic could be applied in many fields – it’s like a kind of targeted advertising system really….

  3. Hello everyone, have you heard of charity Grassroots Suicide Prevention new app Stay Alive? It was developed as a suicide prevention tool kit, for both those with thoughts of suicide and those worried about someone else. It has immediately accessible national and local (to Brighton) crisis resources, tips on how to start conversations about suicide, tips on how to help a friend, well-being and self care activities, information on myths about suicide, a LifeBox section that acts like the blogging site Tumblr- you upload photos of loved ones and things you love, to remind you of the people and things to stay alive for. It has a highly customisable safety plan card, to keep safe when the user feels at risk, or for a friend or loved one to support them with. Stay Alive is available on IOS and Android devices. GO GET YOURS NOW!

  4. […] Paul Bernal’s blogpost deals not only with this specific issue, but also with the general topic of the widespread wooly thinking that fails to distinguish between the many shades of grey between our “public” and “private” activities. Takeaway quote: “[The Samaritans' reasoning is logical] only if you think that ‘private-public’ is a two-valued, black-and-white issue. Either something is ‘public’ and available to all, or it’s ‘private’ and hidden. Privacy, both in the ‘real’ world and on Twitter, doesn’t work like that. It’s far more complex and nuanced than that – and anyone who thinks in those simple terms is fundamentally misunderstanding privacy.“ […]

  5. “the option of making their twitter accounts private – thus effectively locking themselves out of the ‘public’ part of Twitter” – There is a third option – don’t post tweets that you feel are private or semi-private on the open Web.

    You mention that putting ‘@’ at the start of a tweet hides it from the people who don’t follow the person to whom you are addressing – while this is true, the fact is, the majority of people don’t know this. And more importantly, these messages are not semi-private in my opinion. This feature was only implemented by Twitter in an attempt to clean our feeds – most people don’t actually like this feature.

    I’m surprised to find myself on the opposite side of you on this one. But I really don’t see any bad in this app. I see only good. I got fed up with LinkedIn ads so I got a developer to build me a Chrome extension to remove them – same with Facebook ads. I like to avoid tweets that include specific keywords (like football) so I had an extension that removes them. I think everyone should have access to the open web. I also believe we should have tools that help us avoid what we don’t want to see while highlighting what we’d like to find.

    • The thing that made it clearest to me which side to be on in this argument was the opinions of the mental health professionals and advocates that I know and respect – I can see the good possibilities here, but if it actually chills them, that makes a difference. I’ve written about my other objections, but this is the real key for me.

      I’m not sure you’re right about people not knowing the effect of an ‘@’ reply – but I’m also not sure there’s any evidence either way. Do you know of any? The people I know may well be more ‘savvy’ than average… but either way, we do mostly know or at least try to make some tweets more visible than others.

  6. […] Others will be thinking that for once things have gone the right way – people have been able to fight and win against something they saw as deeply intrusive. Both sides have their points. Samaritans Radar is not a ‘privacy’ story! Samaritans Radar: misunderstanding privacy and ‘publicness’ […]

  7. […] Samaritans Radar: misunderstanding privacy and ‘publicness’ The furore over the launch of the Samaritans Radar app has many dimensions: whether it’s ethical, whether it will help, whether it will chill – putting vulnerable people off using Twitter, whether it’s legal – there are huge data protection issues – are just a start. Many excellent pieces have been written about it from all these angles, and they almost all leave me thinking that the whole thing is misconceived, however positive its motivations may be. I’m not going to go over much of these, but want to look at one particular angle where it seems to me that the creators of the app have made a fundamental misunderstanding. To recap, once someone authorises the Samaritans Radar app, that app will automatically scan the tweets of all the people that person follows, looking for signs in those tweets of potentially worrying words or phrases: triggers that suggest that the tweeter may be at risk. […]

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