back to article Samaritans 'suicide Twitter-sniffer' BACKFIRES over privacy concerns

In response to public outcry via Twitter and personal blogs on Wednesday, the Samaritans have announced an opt-out function for their stalker-friendly app. Samaritans Radar automatically scans the tweets of anyone the user follows and alerts subscribers to potentially suicidal tweets based on “trigger phrases”. However well- …

  1. Havin_it

    Desperate attention-seeking behavior the Sams. Their heart is undoubtedly in the right place, but this is really a bad plan. I smell whalesong and joss-sticks.

    I've lost someone to suicide, and asked myself (still do) whether more could have been done, more attention could have been paid. But for that to have even been possible in the context of this app, I'd have had to have suspected severe depression in the subject to begin with, which nobody did (sadly often the way).

    If you suspect someone is going down that path, just fucking talk to them. As much as you can. Do your best to convince them you're not doing so out of social obligation. And get ready for them not believing you and doing it anyway. But as I said, this is largely academic, because, statistically, you won't even suspect it.

    Cheery, eh?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Desperate attention-seeking behavior


      I can't believe you got downvoted for that comment.

      1. Someone Else Silver badge

        Re: Desperate attention-seeking behavior

        The downvote probably came from a "Samaratan"

      2. Turtle


        I also downvoted it. Because of the very first line which if you have forgotten was "Desperate attention-seeking behavior by the Sams..."

  2. chivo243 Silver badge

    I thought April 1st came early

    When I read this on the web somewhere, I was reading the Onion or another satirical time waster. Now at home, I see it is real. Seems like a good idea in theory, but practice tells us it's just whacked!

    I think it's one thing for real friends to be aware changes in state of mind. But, highly big brotherish for total strangers to be looking in...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I thought April 1st came early

      "But, highly big brotherish for total strangers to be looking in..."

      Big brotherish? I'm not even sure if it is legal. You throw enough money at politicians, you can data snoop on anyone regardless of HIPAA laws...apparently. Which is also apparent, is that this is a corporation and not some NPO, because NPO's are bound by HIPAA. There has to be some "i" left undotted or "t" uncrossed somewhere, because something is shady about this.

      EDIT: Ok, this is based in the U.K., so HIPAA as I know it might not exist. HOWEVER, there is a phone number that is directed towards ROI....return of investment...suicide...? But before you ask for your soul investment back, do note that they state "*Please see our website for latest call charges.", so you might have to work a few odd jobs around hell before you can get out.

      1. Old Handle

        Re: I thought April 1st came early

        All they're doing is scanning public tweets. I don't see how it could be illegal. It's just creepy as heck.

      2. Mike Taylor

        Re: I thought April 1st came early


      3. Phil W

        Re: I thought April 1st came early

        IANAL but I suspect the legality of this, from a data protection point of view, may be taken care of Twitter's own terms and conditions that you agree to by signing up and using the service, I would imagine there is a clause in their about consenting to third party apps reading and processing your posts.

        As far the Samaritans being classified as a data processor, the only information they handle is a Twitter ID which is not necessarily identifiable to a real person and the content of their tweets which again don't necessarily contain personally identifiable data.

        Whether they can be considered a data processor for processing publicly published data on the basis that some fool might tweet under their real name and tweet their home address I'm not sure.

      4. NumptyScrub

        Re: I thought April 1st came early

        EDIT: Ok, this is based in the U.K., so HIPAA as I know it might not exist. HOWEVER, there is a phone number that is directed towards ROI....return of investment...suicide...?

        a) we have the Data Protection Act instead of HIPAA, so the legality is still up for debate

        b) in the UK, "RoI" when mentioned alongside phone numbers usually refers to the Republic of Ireland (country code +353)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Suicide is a very private thing

    /sarcasm off

    The problem is when posts are misunderstood and creates much ado about nothing.

  4. Jodo Kast

    Twitter Joke

    Step 1: Put your life on Twitter, publically, as narcissistic as you are.

    Step 2: Complain that people are 'stalking' you on Twitter.

    Makes as much sense as Twitter itself. The kids these days growing up on Facebook and Twitter are truly drama kings and queens.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Twitter Joke


      This does appear to be where our X-Factor society is today, people want to be the star in the soap opera of their own lives.

      Not all suicides are drama queens though, yet even a hurting drama queen is still hurting. And they're still people. Every successful suicide ends with someone unique, someone with a story, dead.

    2. chris lively

      Re: Twitter Joke

      After reading the article I'm trying to understand how any twit could possibly feel like someone is stalking them by reading what they wrote.

      Guess what, if you don't want someone to pay attention to what you say, then don't say it on the internet. How stupid are these people?

      1. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: Twitter Joke

        It's one thing to publish comments on the Internet, it's quite another to have your every comment minutely analysed with the results of that analysis potentially sent to strangers or people who mean you harm. Then there's the very significant risk of an incorrect analysis that you are depressed or suicidal being sent to someone who has your best interest at heart, but who causes you harm as a result of the misinformation. Chemotherapy may be beneficial to a person with cancer, but it can do a lot of damage to a person who is healthy.

        1. Oninoshiko

          Re: Twitter Joke

          So if I personally analyze it, it's all good, but when a program does it, HORRORS!!!11!!eleven!

          When you choose to make a public statement, that can be analyzed by anyone, there is nothing you can do about it.

          You have a right to privacy, but you also have the right to free speech, and the right to choose which is more important to you. Where you put yourself on the continuum between the two is your choice, but when you choose to post every innane set of 140 characters you can come up with for the entire world to read, your loss of privacy is your choice, not a violation of your rights.

        2. heyrick Silver badge

          Re: Twitter Joke

          What Cynic_999 said.

          If you read a post by somebody, it is up to you to decide whether or not that person is expected to be taken seriously. For example, not so long ago somebody made a threat to blow up an airport. They were angry, it was hyperbole, you could follow the sequence of events and determine that for yourself. Likewise, when I mess up, I put my hand to my head as if it was a gun to blow my brains out. This, again, is sarcasm and not a serious desire to off myself.

          The problem, and the possibility to create serious harm, arises when you have a piece of software instructed to pick up on specific "phrases" with no understanding of context. To take these isolated nuggets of information and generate a report to provide to somebody else. That's swinging firmly into creepy-territory, and one wonders if it isn't a form of libel - after all, if I read some of your posts (you, dear reader, you) and decided that you had a probability of being a paedo, and then told other people about it...well, there are laws being broken...

          From personal experience, I knew a person who was always going on about how their life sucked and the easy way out was a more and more attractive idea. This person then went and married and started a family. Meanwhile the smiley girl that was always happy and bouncy and talked to everybody about everything...hung herself. It seems to me that the people who say the least about their problems are the ones that need the most attention.

      2. John Tserkezis

        Re: Twitter Joke

        "Guess what, if you don't want someone to pay attention to what you say, then don't say it on the internet. How stupid are these people?"

        I need to put my 2c in here.

        I've had more than my fair share of firends who were either suicidal, or had suicided. None of them, not even close, where drama queens or attention seekers. But then again, none of them were social media users either.

        Take from that what you will (Facebook, Twitter et al, kills brain cells).

    3. John Tserkezis

      Re: Twitter Joke

      "Makes as much sense as Twitter itself. The kids these days growing up on Facebook and Twitter are truly drama kings and queens."

      Good point. It's not everyone, but enough that it works backwards.

      My niece is doing a school project on making a pamphlette to assist teens with depression and/or anxiety.

      Being invovled in mental health myself, I was called upon for suggestions. Of all the websites, and people to talk to that we suggested, Social Media was NOT one of them. And for good reason.

      As well meaning as you think it is, the only word I can think of that might fit, is a big data version of 'clusterfuck'.

      I recall perhaps a couple of years ago, a facebook user who dared mention her depression. She was actively messagebombed and hounded to the effect of "hurry up and kill yourself, why are you taking so long?". And soon after, she did.

      This is the type of 'council' you're getting from Facebook. No truer anywhere else than here, "with "friends" like these, who needs enemies?". Indeed.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Got it the wrong way around.

    If it had been anyone less worthy than The Samaritans, I'm sure this app would have led to accusations of scummy behaviour, simply because it allowed people to sign up to monitor others without their knowledge or approval.

    The proper way to undo the damage is to change it so that people who want to be monitored can Opt In, specifying exactly who can get the feed.

    This won't cover all who are suicidal, but I think many are well aware of their danger to themselves and could be helped by this.

    1. Alan Edwards

      Re: Got it the wrong way around.

      > The proper way to undo the damage is to change it so that people who want

      > to be monitored can Opt In, specifying exactly who can get the feed.

      People do know you can sign up to get a feed of *every* public tweet, don't they? Samaritans could have signed up to that and monitored the entire (Twitter) world and no-one would be any the wiser.

      Apparently not just Twitter either. FourSquare (location) is on there too, and WordPress (blogs) and Disqus (comments).

  6. AdamT

    Umm, Twitter != private ?

    OK, so I haven't read all the T&C's of Twitter or considered all the possible options of blocking people and the setting that only lets your followers see your tweets, but .... basically, if you tweet, even with no followers, it can still be read by anyone who has some means of finding it, right? And this could include random search terms, following a hashtag you might have used or that it is a reply to some other tweet you were looking at. So how can this be an invasion of privacy? They are just making it easy to pay attention to something that someone said effectively in public. Arguably creepy, though.

    1. Jack's_Rage

      Re: Umm, Twitter != private ?

      Yeah I am not understanding how this is a privacy thing. It you say something and mean for it to be heard how can you get upset that someone hears it? If you want something to stay private don't release it. Once you give someone a piece of information it is no longer yours but theirs and anyone they feel like handing it to. And if you have a stalker I would hope you would know better then to give dangerous information out on twitter, like chilling at the taco shack by myself lolz.

      1. Mike Taylor

        Re: Umm, Twitter != private ?

        It's interesting that this was based around an app. You could do similar with the twitter api - several companies mine the firehose and still the content, analysis etc. they could have done their text moving on that and then pm'ed the tweeter directly

  7. Zog_but_not_the_first

    Rather a sad story

    Their heart was undoubtedly in the right place but somewhere along the line surely someone must have said, "Hang on..."

    1. The Axe

      Re: Rather a sad story

      Nope, no one would have said "hang on". The problem is all charities are populated by do gooders who think that they should do something, anything, even when the thing is counter productive.

  8. Only me!

    Opt Out

    So to opt out you:

    a) Have to know that they monitor the data and tell people

    b) Know someone following you is signed up (Steven Fry, watch out)

    c) Follow the people that you do not want to monitor you

    d) Say hello stop monitoring me

    e) De follow them

    f) Block the people that are now following you to sell you anti depressant pills because you followed them

    Oh as it is that simple, it is all ok then.....lucky I was not depressed before I started, because I am now.

  9. trance gemini

    just ...

    ... when i thought my book 'the death of common sense in the 21st century' was nearly finished ...

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



  11. Number6

    Welcome Publicity

    I appreciate their concern, and that others are worried about the implications, but they have at least pointed out how easy it is to monitor something like Twitter for key words and phrases and target people. It may not help those with mental health issues to discover that their safe place isn't actually safe, but that just highlights the fact that they need somewhere they can feel safe discussing their issues with the people of their choice, not the array of 'professionals' who want to help.

  12. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Twitter is not a private forum

    Is this app a good idea? I don't know. But:

    1) Tweets are public by default. These people may have some expectation of privacy, but this expectation is unrealistic, anyone can view these tweets.

    2) There is a "protected" tweet option (I didn't know about this until i just googled to check), in this case the user is manually approving every twitter follower before they can see the tweets. It may be a good idea to have this app ignore "protected" tweets? I don't know, though, it really depends on if the info is sent on to the Samaritans, or if it just tells the user who installed the app (they, after all, already get the tweets in question.)

    3) However, it is the follower running the Samaritan app, not someone data mining through all tweets available.

    As for legality? That I don't know; here in the US, there essentially is no privacy, companies are virtually unregulated in what info they can collect and the big data broker firms have shocking amounts on most people; some federal agencies ignore the law and the Constitution *cough*NSA*cough*, and other agencies are strictly regulated in what information they can collect, but they aren't prohibited from buying up exactly the same information from private companies. I'm quite sure it's 100% lega l here.

    Europe? No idea, the privacy regs there are infinitely stricter than here. I don't know if it'd cover the public tweets or not. The tricky part with the private tweets, is if the app does all the processing on-phone (which is entirely likely since it just does some keyword search) then no data is actually sent to a 3rd party.

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    1. Mr Lion

      Re: With all due respect

      In fairness, the Samaritans are a very well respected charity which (in the UK at least) does a huge amount of work to support those suffering from depression and other forms of mental illness and those at risk of suicide. Whilst I agree this may well be misjudged your totally made-up assessment of the organisation is wildly inaccurate.

    2. Ralara

      Re: With all due respect

      The Samaritans are a UK charity (not sure if they work in other countries) which provides free assistance and help to those suffering from depression. They have a phone line you can call at any time, manned by volunteers who will listen to you.

      If you're a fan of Star Trek, imagine a charity of Guinans.

      Unlike PETA or other "extreme" charities / organisations, the Samaritans haven't ever really done anything wrong and they have no ulterior motive as far as I can tell.

      For some people, especially those who are isolated or extremely introverted, they are the only form of human contact available and therefore provide a very much needed and valuable service.

      This idea ... their heart is in the right place but the implementation is a bit... eh.

    3. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: With all due respect

      Umm you didn't give them ANY due respect. Your attack on a well respected charity has been noted

      1. Someone Else Silver badge

        @Martin-73 -- Re: With all due respect

        "Well-respected charities"...indeed, well-respected anythings...don't do things that that are so patently un-respectworthy. They so crossed the line here, and it appears that you (and the other 14 or so down-voters) don't think they should be called out on it. Why is that? Is it because they are so "well-respected"? Is it because they call themselves "Samaritans? Is it because they're British? I may be having a particularly dense week, but I guess I'm just not seeing it.

        1. heyrick Silver badge

          Re: @Martin-73 -- With all due respect

          @ Someone Else: Your downvotes may be because...

          "Who the bloody fuck are the Samaratans?" - would have been quicker to Google than to type that.

          "Well lah-dee-fuckin-dah! A bunch of fucking busybodies," - and now you're making judgements without even knowing anything about the organisation. <slow clap>

          "probably driven by some charismatic fundamentalist "leader"" - your lack of knowledge here is actually painful.

          "'cuz their website is blocked here" - what are you, at some weirdo American school that censors anything that might be controversial such as the word "suicide"? Go look up the words to the theme song of M*A*S*H, if you can, that is.

          "But it is pointedly not the business of some self-appointed group of goody-two-shoes" - it is a charity with trained volunteers. Perhaps something of an indictment of our times, that they may be the only people that somebody with issues can turn to. Thanks to the Internet, trolls, and the way daily life works, it can be hard to find somebody to open up to. If you have a mental health issue (or think you might), the last thing many people would want is to talk to family, friends, or coworkers. If you are feeling suicidal, you never ever mention it on the internet or you'd get a chorus of "hurry up and kill yourself you sad bastard" messages. So who does a person talk to, huh?

          ""Samaratans"? Really?!? How pompously self-serving!" - actually, the name was coined by a newspaper reporting on the, then unnamed, organisation. This was back in the '50s.

          "to intervene unasked and unannounced into what is clearly a very private and personal issue" - it certainly is private and personal, and too many people take it to their graves. When you get depressed, it is all to easy to believe that telling anybody will just make things worse, and in many situations, they're right. We're all bastards. But if somebody somewhere makes an effort, maybe the affected person will realise that, yeah, life can be shitty, but it's something they are far from alone in experiencing. So if the right person intervenes, even unannounced, it could be a better outcome than eternal silence.

          "And more importantly, it is not their business to cut a wide swath through the Twittersphere" - true, this was a bit misguided. Not to mention the potential numbers of false positives. Moreso given that this news has broken so I reckon some trolls will be out to game the app.

          "My business is not your business until/unless I say it is. Kindly keep that straight." - err, yeah, your business kind of is my business if you blab it all over Twitter and I'm reading. If you have those sorts of ideas regarding privacy, social media isn't for you...

  15. cyrus

    If you use Twitter

    ... Or Facebook, or any such social media, you get what you deserve.

  16. squigbobble

    The road to Data Protection Hell... paved with good intentions.

  17. Stretch

    Spam accounts and Sock Puppets cannot commit suicide so seems really pointless monitoring twitter.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    > Others said it would force people with mental health issues off the social network.

    You say that as if its a bad thing? Maybe that would be a good thing for sufferers to not listen to the inane ramblings of a bunch of twats?

  19. Laurence Cuffe

    I use to scan my followers tweets for links relating to science education etc. It collates the resulting data into a newssheet, which is published on the web daily. I don't see that there is a data protection issue, because I don't have non disclosure agreements in place with any of them, This app is functionally similar, except the only person it notifies is the person who is subscribed to the twitter stream anyway.

    Lets not be too politically correct here. Drawing an analogy with a phone call. Suppose a friend calls me and sounds down. I might do something about it. All this is is an automated system for drawing my attention to the fact that my friend sounds down and might need a little more attention than usual.

    End of story.

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