Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Good Samaritans or sinister surveillance? The app that tries to stop suicide

According to an email I received earlier this afternoon, I should be worried about the mental state of someone I know. An alert popped up in my inbox from an app called ‘Radar‘ which the Samaritans launched this week, telling me a tweet from someone I followed might suggest they were contemplating suicide. Here’s the tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 14.18.03
Clearly the Samaritans need to work on their formula, otherwise I’ll be receiving daily alerts whenever Jim Murphy warns against Scottish Labour committing electoral self-harm or one Conservative faction warns another faction that it is being politically suicidal.

The Samaritans say they pursued the app, which monitors certain words and phrases in tweets before alerting users signed up to the service, because social media ‘is increasingly being used as an outlet for people to share their feelings’ and that ‘there are some who may go online in the hope that someone will reach out and offer support’. Chances are that most of the tweets Radar picks up will use those trigger words figuratively, but then again the chances are that the one person whose crisis is highlighted by the app will be quite grateful for it.

Then again, the app hasn’t gone down particularly well with mental health campaigners or those interested in privacy and civil liberties who are worried not just about the initial collection of data by the charity, but by its offer of a ‘whitelist’ of those who don’t want to be monitored by it, which is itself another form of data collection. But on the other hand, if you’ve tweeted something, it’s hardly private, is it?

I’ll leave the debate about the whether the Samaritans are right to use Twitter as an ‘important surveillance tool’ (their words) to Jamie once he’s disentangled himself from the charity’s monitoring process. But

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