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Samaritans Radar Twitter app generating a whole load of false positives

The Samaritans have come under fire for a recent controversial Twitter app Samaritans Radar (opens in new tab), which notifies a user's followers if they conform to recognised signs of being suicidal. But according to a recent report, the evidence suggests this app is actually delivering a very large number of false positives.

For instance, one tweet (opens in new tab) was flagged which read "Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of High Court of England and Wales, is as mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore."

This is really to be expected, as the app apparently uses nothing more sophisticated than a crude keyword algorithm. While the above user was simply quoting the famous line from classic film Network, the phrase "not going to take it anymore" has apparently triggered the app into sending out messages to all of @JackofKent's (54.3K, by the way) Twitter followers.

One Twitter user, @BathysphereHat, tested the service (opens in new tab) with a string of potentially worrying tweets, none of which were picked up by the service. Tweets to which the Samaritans Radar simply shrugged and moved on include "I want to overdose" and "I'm going to stab myself".

Another user (opens in new tab) expressed bafflement at how "people trained (pretty well) to listen have suddenly be one so bad at listening!"

The Samaritans have released a terse but defensive statement about the app.

"We have taken the time to seek further legal advice on the issues raised. Our continuing view is that Samaritans Radar is compliant with the relevant data protection legislation for the following reasons:

We believe that Samaritans are neither the data controller or data processor of the information passing through the app

All information identified by the app is available on Twitter, in accordance with Twitter's Ts&Cs (link here). The app does not process private tweets.

If Samaritans were deemed to be a data controller, given that vital interests are at stake, exemptions from data protection law are likely to apply."

While we love the work that Samaritans do for some of our most vulnerable citizens, this app was poorly thought-out, and should be retracted before the PR disaster gets worse. A petition on to shut down the app has reached 1,200 signatures (opens in new tab) at the time of writing.

What do you think? Is this an invasion of privacy or a good idea? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, or stop by for a chat with the ITProPortal team and other readers on ITProPortal's tech talk live chat.

Paul has worked as an archivist, editor and journalist, and has a PhD in the cultural and literary significance of ruins. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The BBC, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and he was previously Staff Writer and Journalist at ITProPortal.