Samaritans Radar is not a ‘privacy’ story!

The story of the Samaritans Radar app continues to rage on. I’ve written about it before, and how it demonstrates a misunderstanding of privacy – but that doesn’t mean that it’s really a ‘privacy’ story at all. Quite the opposite. Privacy is largely incidental to the story of Samaritans Radar, and not even close to the central problems with the system – and I say that as a privacy scholar and a privacy advocate.

This has come out twice for me during the day. Firstly, when I was accused by one of the supporters of the Samaritans Radar app of being one of a handful of privacy advocates trying to derail an app that will save lives. Secondly, when one of the opponents of the app pointed out that the mainstream media seems to be treating this primarily as a privacy story, and suggesting that the main problems with the app relate to privacy.

Now privacy is an important part of the problem with the Samaritans Radar app – but only in an instrumental way. As I see it, the real problems with the app are that it makes already vulnerable people more vulnerable, that it disrupts what is, for many people, a really positive community online, a place where they can find support in a natural, human way, and that it breaks down trust. It is the trust is critical here, not the privacy.

I was alerted to the existence of the app, and to the problems with the app, by Tweeter @latentexistence, an activist in mental health and disability – and it’s important to understand that the first people concerned with the app were people who are part of the mental health community on Twitter, not the privacy advocates. They remain the core to the ‘resistance’ to the app – privacy advocates like me are supporters of theirs, not the instigators of the resistence. I’ve worked a bit in the mental health field, but peripherally – I was the finance director of a mental health charity. Enough, though, to recognise the importance of trust, and how privacy is critical for that trust. If vulnerable people are to feel safe, they need privacy – not as some abstract or airy-fairy right, but as something to protect them.

There’s a strong and effective community of mental health professionals, and people who have mental health issues, on Twitter. Twitter offers some significant advantages to some people with both physical and mental health issues – that’s why things like the remarkable ‘Spartacus Report’ happened. I’ve been deeply inspired by them, and feel happy to support them in any way that I can. That’s why I got involved in the campaign against the Samaritans Radar app – not just because it fits ‘my’ privacy agenda.

…and anyway, the way that I see privacy is primarily instrumental. My book is called ‘Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy’, because that’s what I see as the most important purpose of privacy. To protect our autonomy, as much as it can.  Vulnerable people, people who might potentially be the kind to contact the Samaritans, need that autonomy. They want that autonomy – and the Samaritans, in their non-online form, respect that absolutely. It’s up to people to call them – and when they call them they are listened to and respected, not judged. The Samaritans Radar app reverses that – the fact that it invades privacy in order to do so is not nearly as important as the way that it breaks their trust and disrespects them and their autonomy.

7 thoughts on “Samaritans Radar is not a ‘privacy’ story!

  1. I’m a privacy advocate who researched the topic of online privacy while I was Chair of the British Interactive Media Association before most people even thought about online privacy. So, like you, I have an appreciation and understanding for the subject. I’m new to this conversation as I’ve been offline for the past few weeks. But I don’t agree with the people who think the app is breaking people’s trust or privacy. People who write tweets in public are obviously writing messages for the public to see – so having those tweets highlighted for their followers is most likely going to be a good thing. Right?

    Could it be that that this is a fine example of an organization doing good, being held to higher, or possibly unrealistic standards than private tech companies?

  2. The opposition to Samaritans Radar is that supporters presume it will be used by listeners to support the vulnerable. With all due respect I’d suggest this presumes a hugely over-optimistic misunderstanding of human nature. Many people seek to manipulate and take advantage of others, whether it is a revengeful ex, a malicious stalker, a prig looking to unmask ‘an immoral person’, someone with faith looking to do down an unbeliever, someone looking for gain or simply seeking vulnerable people to convert to their brand of superstition or extreme politics. Such people can, and will, install Samaritans Radar to help them identify targets to move in to and latch on to for their own selfish ends. It is a personal disaster in the making for many Samaritans may have helped in the past and may help in the future. For The Samaritans it is likely to be a public relations disaster on an epic scale.

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