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Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Privacy concerns over charity’s anti-suicide app

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Charity under fire over privacy settings on new app

Suicide prevention charity the Samaritans has defended a mobile app designed to flag-up suicidal thoughts after concerned users questioned whether their privacy was being infringed.

Friends or family members can sign up to Samaritans Radar, which will then monitor the tweets of a person they are worried about, and alert them by email if the content of tweets suggests that they are vulnerable.

However a number of social media users have questioned whether Samaritans is surveilling people’s tweets without their permission – falling foul of strict data protection rules.

Under the dedicated #SamaritansRadar tag, a large number of Twitter users complained that the app, once enabled, does not explicitly ask for permission to scan tweets.

They called for a dedicated "opt-out" mechanism and said the prospect of being monitored would stop them from posting anything online, adding that the app could highlight vulnerable users to stalkers or online bullies, potentially causing harm.

This app has been released without adequate assessment of its impact on people’s privacy

The charity has responded by updating its website FAQs.

It now says tweets will only be retained by the app for seven - as opposed to 30 - days, and have removed the words saying the app will retain “flags against a Twitter user’s friend's ID”.

Joe Ferns, director of research and development at Samaritans, said on Twitter that the inclusion of this in the original FAQs was “a throwback to a stage of the development where that was being considered”.

Samaritans also say: “The only people who will be able to see the alerts, and the tweets flagged in them are followers who would have received these tweets in their current feed already.”

However a spokesperson for the website Information Rights and Wrongs, which first flagged-up the issue, said this statement didn’t absolve them of their responsibilities.

“A data controller does not need to access data in order to determine the means by which and the manner in which personal data are being processed, and they (Samaritans) are still doing this.

“Moreover, this changing of the FAQs, with no apparent change to the position that those whose tweets are processed get no fair processing notice whatsoever, makes me more concerned that this app has been released without adequate assessment of its impact on people’s privacy.”

Some Twitter users suggested the tool would alter people’s behaviour – leading ultimately to self-censorship.

However Ferns said: "From Samaritans' perspective, that would be really disappointing, that's not what this is about," he said.

He added: "No one from Samaritans is going to contact you out of the blue because you've used certain language, and we're certainly not trying to encourage people to be censored."

So far the app has so been downloaded over 1,000 times.