Suppose you find a cafe where lots of people with mental health problems hang out. Some of them go off into private nooks, but the majority sit round tables. They’re out in the open area with their cappuccinos and chai lattes, so technically anyone could overhear if they chose, but to all intents and purposes they are having frank, semi-private chats. One of the things they talk about openly, for mutual support, is their experience of suicidal feelings. Thoughts of suicide are common in the general population but disclosure can often be met with shock or inappropriate action like an unnecessary 999 call, so people like the cafe’s feeling of safety and freedom. Part of its charm is being a space away from family, colleagues and everyday friends who often wouldn’t understand.
Then one day a Mr Sam turns up. Mr Sam is a bit of an expert on suicide; he’s spent his life training others to give comfort and support to the suicidal via phone, text and email. Only Mr Sam, he’s not comfortable with the cafe. He’s anxious that people might be talking to each other about suicide while their nearest and dearest who don’t frequent the cafe much, and the nice doctors and nurses who just want to help, might never know.
Troubled by this, he sets up a booth at the cafe door offering a brand new service. Anyone approaching the booth can point out people they have an interest in. Mr Sam will then put a tiny microphone on the Subject, and if they start talking openly about suicide Mr Sam will gather the data and phone it through to the Interested Party. Obviously as it’s an open cafe the Interested Party could just hang around in the cafe or pop in from time to time, or even ask the Subject how they’re doing, but Mr Sam wants to make it easier for vulnerable people to be watched. For their own good.
Having set up his booth, Mr Sam gets up on a box and addresses the cafe, explaining the virtues of his scheme and letting everyone know that he has also notified the media of his wonderful new idea.
Mr Sam then finds himself deluged with questions.
Q Will Mr Sam tell the Subject he’s putting a mic on them?
A Nope, he’ll do it in secret, because it’s for their own good.
Q Will Mr Sam tell the Subject they are apparently a matter of concern to any Interested Party?
A No, because it’s for their own good.
Q Will Mr Sam notify the Subject that he’s collecting and phoning through data about them?
Q Will Mr Sam ask the Interested Party what business they have listening in to the Subject?
Q So they could be someone who wishes the Subject harm and enjoys knowing they’re in crisis? A bully or an internet troll?
Q So they could be a nosy family member that the Subject is really not keen on talking to about their mental health?
Q So they could be a stalker or abusive partner who could exploit the Subject’s suicidality to frighten them more or insinuate themselves back into their lives?
Q So they could be a journalist?
Mr Sam sets up his magical booth on Wednesday. All day people approach him outlining their discomfort, unhappiness and downright fear of his helpful scheme. People quickly produce pamphlets about how Orwellian Mr Sam’s idea seems, how unsafe they feel, how the scheme may even be illegal.
By Thursday, the café’s already a little quieter. Some mental health folk have gone into private rooms and locked the doors. Some have gone home to mull over whether they can ever feel safe in the cafe again; some have already left for good. Some are still sipping their coffee but are subdued, quiet, avoiding talking about their true feelings because they don’t know who might be listening.
In the interim, Mr Sam’s made a video explaining what a great idea his booth is and how pleased he is with its “reach”. And I’m left wondering if the cafe can ever be safe and vibrant again.
excellent way to explain it and get across why it’s not a good idea. I really hope they see the error they’ve made and remove the app asap
I’ve been trying to express some of this stuff myself, but this is so perfect, I shan’t bother!
Thank for doing this article. You have written and explained it spot on. I have BPD. Last night I had to lock my twitter account for my own safety. I now feel silenced and withdrawn from twitter because of the Samaritans radar. I’m concerned it’s causing others to do the same.
Just perfect, thank you.
I suspect in the UK that those in the cafe potentially have recourse to the data protection act. Such information is automatically classified as sensitive and (for example) if a health insurance company has it they cannot share it with third parties without the person’s express consent. Now in my example the insurer would be able to go to a named doctor and say “I have a letter from you to Mr Smith stating that they were admitted into hospital on X date, but it doesn’t tell me when they were discharged, please clarify” because that would be needed to process a claim. The insurer would not be able to go to Mr Smith’s wife for that information – they’d be in breach of the DPA.
Which is a criminal offence and involves very heavy fines …
I think you have described this perfectly. As someone who also blogs about mental illness, there are going to be times when old posts are tweeted which would flag the system. Twitter already has the ability to report tweets because of self harm..so I wonder if this is a little over kill. The beauty of Twitter, at least for me is that I am able to voice how I am feeling without real life repercussions. I have a lot of people in my life who don’t understand that me saying that I have been thinking about self harm, doesn’t mean that I am in immediate danger. I only have one person in my life who I can chat candidly with about mental illness. I would hate to lose the outlet that twitter provides.
I wish there was a LOVE button…because i LOVE it!!!
I have to say, I haven’t really looked into the Samaritans App, much, it’s been a crazy, stomach bug filled week here, I planned to read more on it, when I have time. It “seems” very well meaning, of them to have this app, but as you say, where is the line drawn? Who has access to our information? Who gets to decide what tweet really is indicative of someone actually about to take their own life, or may just be having a really bad day, struggling with their mental health issues or life situation, and simply letting the thoughts in their head out onto what they consider their safe space, in relative anonymity but then risking repercussions? Also, it does put a huge onus, on those who receive the message that a friend may be tweeting about suicide or seem very fragile, that they HAVE to do something, and puts the responsibility on them, doesn’t it? If for example I sign up, to get a warning when say, yourself, who I follow on Twitter, and I get a mail telling me you might be talking about things indicative of you wanting to take your own life, but don’t get the mail for a day, if say, I am on holiday, or at a work event and can’t check my mails, or simply haven’t had time to look at them, where does that leave me or anyone else who might be getting notified? What are we supposed to do? Obviously I would be concerned, want to make sure you are ok, and if you needed help you got it, but it seems very far fetched to put that responsibility on followers of someone on social media? I hope I am not sounding harsh or uncaring, but I don’t see it as my job to monitor all the people I follow on social media or to be responsible for them, although I would obviously act if I could?
I have some thoughts on the Samaritans, anyway, I actually started working for them, as a volunteer on their helpline, a few years ago, but couldn’t continue but that’s for my own blog, one day, if I can get them into some sort of sensible order.
Hope I am making sense? Bit tired and all over the place today!
This is by far the best explanation of my reservations about this app. Put into the words I couldn’t quite find myself.
This is perfect – little brings tears to my eyes, but this did. Thank you.
Reblogged this on Paul Karam Kassab.
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The Samaritans have responded to the online Twitter debate on their twitter feed. Let’s remember before we all pile in with witty sarcasm that this app with all it’s faults came from a good place. The Samaritans is an organisation where ordinary people give their time freely and anonymously to ordinary people in acute mental distress. As a person with schizophrenia whose life was saved by one kind thoughtful listening stranger it’s important to remember the wonderful work they do do.
If harm is caused – and it genuinely was, people inmediately felt terrified they were being watched, some hid their accounts, some left Twitter, and there was a huge amount of genuine distress – then I’m afraid being “well intentioned” doesnt make it amt better. In this case it makes it WORSE. An organisation hitherto trusted by the mental health community for never entering into monitoring or sharing of suicidal persons’ information wuth third parties DEVELOPS AN APP TO MONITOR PEOPLE’S MENTAL STATE AND SHARE IT WITH UNKNOWN THIRD PARTIES?? Are you kidding me? If you think this post was intended ti be “witty” or “sarcastic” then you have failed grasp the issues at hand. This post isn’t making fun of anything. It’s an analogy demonstrating the risks. It’s the closest real world equivalent of Twitter I could think of, and the issues are exactly the same as those created by Samaritans Radar. The online world isn’t THAT different to the real world. If it’s not OK in a public cafe, its probably not OK in an open Twitter feed. Also you speak as if you think i have never been suicidal, in which case you clearly haven’t seen me posting about what is just the latest and possibly riskiest suicidal epioside of my life. This app makes me feel, as a sucidal person, SO MUCH LESS SAFE. Anyone at all could monitor my state of mind when I am at my most vulnerable with the help of this app. Would you feel safe if literally anyone who passed you on the street could opt for your thoights tio be monitored? Because thar is exactly what this app does. And that’s appalling abuse of people to have a safe space online. By a leading mental heakth charity.
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Thank you for this, you sum it up perfectly and have actually purt words to the part that scared me most – The idea that a family member or RL distant-friend who doesn’t really *use* Twitter, but followed me time-immemorial ago, might get Samaritans Radar without correspondingly paying attention to their Twitter feed, so that all that they get is sporadic updates about my suicidal thoughts. Effectively, letting a machine do the Twitter-stalking, so that they don’t have to.
For the record, I’m one of the people who locked their account, seriously winnowed down their follow list, and blocked a lot of people who, in normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have blocked (Because I didn’t mind them reading me, I just didn’t want them to potentially get updates whenever I’m in crisis).
Anyway, thank you.
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According to their site, the Samaritans spent more than a year developing this software, somehow. And apparently nobody – in an organisation that does this for a living – thought about the negative impact it might have on vulnerable people. And that’s the crux of the privacy problem: control is being taken away from vulnerable people and being put, inevitably, into the hands of people who mean them harm. They mean harm even if only for the lulz. Many more intend specific harm to happen to specific people.
The Samaritans of all organisations should be smarter than this.
Reminds me of a draft “crisis app” I was asked to comment on recently – it had been designed by well-meaning psychologists around their idea of what people *should* want. I saw the content and was horrified. Designing things for people instead of with (or better by) the target audience.
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