Weary, Stale, Flat, Unprofitable - and in breach of the Data Protection Act | Susan Hall · IP/ICT Lawyer

Weary, Stale, Flat, Unprofitable - and in breach of the Data Protection Act

Samaritans’ Radar Logo

"Every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies"
--Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

It's a depressing thought that a woman who died two hundred years before Twitter was invented shows a rather sounder grasp of the issues surrounding new Twitter app Samaritans Radar (launched 29 October 2014) than the suicide prevention charity who developed and are promoting it.

According to the Samaritans' own press releases and website, the purpose of the app is "To Help Identify Vulnerable People" -- something Austen's cads achieved rather more dramatically by turning up at Brighton or Ramsgate in their regimentals.

Users who sign up to the app can use it to monitor their "friends" timelines 24/7. If the app is triggered by use of one or more of key words or phrases, it sends an email to the user who has signed up to carry out surveillance, together with guidance on what to do next.

There is no opt-out for people who dislike the idea of living within this pro-actively nosy neighbourhood. The Samaritans' website makes it clear that Twitter users are kept unaware they are being surveyed, and the only information retained by the Samaritans themselves as to the users of the app are their Twitter handles and email addresses. Accordingly, anyone -- be they a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, an Emma Woodhouse, a Mrs Bennet, a General Tilney or a Wickham -- can deploy this surveillance tool in complete privacy, wait until the target of their surveillance is at his or her lowest ebb, and then act as they see fit.

More worryingly, none of the disturbingly up-beat press releases, web pages or YouTube videos from Samaritans' representatives Joe Ferns and Jen Russell acknowledge the app's potential to aid stalkers and abusers.

This is extraordinary, especially given recent high-profile cases such as that of Zelda Williams, Robin Williams' daughter, driven off Twitter by vicious abuse in the wake of her father's suicide. "You'd be better off dead" is a chant typical of cyber-bullies, and, tragically, it often has a major impact.

The argument put forward by the Samaritans' in their FAQs that "All the data used in the app is public, so user privacy is not an issue" shows a shockingly lack of awareness of both of relevant data protection law -- discussed at more length by Information Rights lawyer Jon Baines -- and of the power of the Samaritans' "brand".

In the sixty-plus years since the organisation was founded, it has become synonymous with suicide prevention and an acknowledged expert on areas such as responsible reporting of suicide by the media.

As a result, a pronouncement by the Samaritans that a particular tweet or succession of tweets indicate that the tweeter may be suicidal carries far more weight than the same indication by an untrained Joe or Joanna Public. This aspect, and the consequent increased risk of stigmatisation of those flagged up by the app, seems to have been overlooked by those behind the Samaritans Radar app.

The problems are increased because, at least as the app has been described to date, it seems to be comparatively crude and wide-open to generating false positives.

Samaritans Radar involves the use of "a specially designed algorithm that looks for specific keywords and phrases within a Tweet." Key words or phrases include "tired of being alone”, "hate myself”, "depressed” “help me” and “need someone to talk to.”

The Samaritans acknowledge themselves that that app is in its early stages and is not yet up to detecting sarcasm. The jury remains out on whether it can also filter out quotations from Hamlet, Smiths' lyrics ("Heavens knows I'm miserable now") or complaints from paranoid androids ("I'm so depressed; I've got a terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side").

However, this point may not be appreciated by family members, employers or potential employers or other users of the app, who, dazzled by the strength of the Samaritans' reputation, make decisions about individuals based on results the app returns.

Here, too, the Data Protection Act has an answer. Section 12:Rights in relation to automated decision-taking was originally intended to stop job-seekers being prejudiced by automatic algorithms weeding out applicants without human intervention. However, section 12(1), which provides

An individual is entitled at any time, by notice in writing to any data controller, to require the data controller to ensure that no decision taken by or on behalf of the data controller which significantly affects that individual is based solely on the processing by automatic means of personal data in respect of which that individual is the data subject for the purpose of evaluating matters relating to him such as, for example, his performance at work, his creditworthiness, his reliability or his conduct

seems equally applicable to Samaritans Radar. Even though the current DPA registration for the Samaritans does not appear to cover at present the data processing associated with the Samaritans Radar application, there appears absolutely no doubt that the Samaritans are indeed processing data obtained using that app, and transferring that data to third parties.1

As a result, in addition to the usual right of data subjects to have subject access2, it also seems possible for those worried by the Samaritans Radar app to serve notice on the Samaritans objecting to any automatic decision making, in accordance with Section 12 of the DPA. Depending on circumstances, it may also be possible to object under Section 10 of the DPA: Right to prevent processing likely to cause damage or distress.3

The Data Protection Act, in short, when properly deployed puts a number of substantial barriers in the way of the nosiness of others, however much they cloak that nosiness as concern. As a rather later writer than Jane Austen observed, "Good fences make good neighbours."

  1. Given there seems to be no geographical restriction on who can sign up to the app, how the Samaritans are managing to comply with their obligations under the eighth data protection principle about not transferring data outside the EEA is wholly unclear. 

  2. Samaritans' subject access application details, £10 charge. 

  3. An excellent example of a section 10 notice from someone specifically concerned about risks from Samaritans Radar in the context of LGBTQ activism... 

The main image used for this article is: 'Samaritans’ Radar Logo' and was used under the terms detailed at the above link on the date this article was first published.

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