Why the Samaritans Were the Worst Possible People to Run Samaritans Radar

13/11/2014 10:36 | Updated 12 January 2015

Goodbye then, Samaritans Radar. On Friday, the UK-based helpline at last pulled the plug on its controversial Twitter monitoring app - ending an agonisingly public ten-day dispute, which saw the charity threatened with legal action by some of the very people it had set out to aid. Before service was suspended, the aptly-named Radar had scanned almost two million Twitter accounts, scrutinising each message for specific phrases judged to indicate emotional distress.

Depending on who you listen to, Radar was either a much-maligned example of visionary technology or an Orwellian exercise in paternalistic control. But whatever the truth, the debacle's done unknowable damage to the Samaritans' online reputation - and more importantly, their app seems to have hurt many of those it was intended to support. Over 1,200 people signed a petition to close the service down, with some saying that concerns about surveillance had discouraged them from seeking support in the Twitterverse.

It's sad that it's ended in such unmitigated farce, because Radar really wasn't that bad an idea. At first glance, it seemed a neat new way to look out for your mates online - flashing a message onto your phone if it detected a friend in need of a kindly word. Ant Meads, a young man with depression and OCD, is one of the few people with direct experience of mental illness who've spoken out in favour of the app. Writing on his blog, Ant explained how he sometimes uses Twitter to shout for help, and how he'd welcome an alarm system which could pick up his mood and promptly alert his friends.

Had the Samaritans built an app to empower people like Ant, giving him a tool that he controlled, then the past couple of weeks would have played out very differently. But alas, they did something stomach-churningly creepy instead.

Any of your Twitter followers could sign up for Radar; and if they did, the Samaritans started scanning your tweets without your knowledge or consent. If you triggered an alert, they'd send an email to your follower, without asking you first. Their privacy policy even promised that you'd never know. And just to make the scenario horrifyingly complete, you don't need someone's permission to follow them on Twitter - which meant that Radar might covertly announce your emotional state to almost anyone at all.

And that's exactly why the Samaritans are the last people on Earth who should have got involved with this app.

I phoned the Samaritans myself once, back in 2002. Even twelve years on, it's surprisingly hard to write those words - but nowhere near as hard as it was to actually make the call. Among the many factors which eventually persuaded me to pick up the phone, two stand out today: the fact I knew they'd listen, and the fact I knew they wouldn't tell.

The Samaritans rightly emphasise the confidentiality of their service. Their website covers the topic in thorough detail, even sharing some helpful advice on how to maintain privacy at your end of the phone. And when discretion's such an essential part of what the Samaritans do, lending their name to a purposefully blabbermouth app was nothing short of bizarre.

To be fair, Radar didn't actually breach any confidences. The tweets it monitored were public anyway - so while it might draw unwanted attention to a hasty comment, it couldn't reveal anything genuinely new. But when you strip the legal arguments away, the Samaritans were still discussing your mental well-being with someone else, and you can't expect a person in crisis to work through the fine details as they hover by the phone in the middle of the night.

In short, the Samaritans were risking their core values from the moment they even thought of Radar. So why did they embark on such a perilous path?

It's tempting to blame hubris, but I think the real reason's more forgivable than that. The days when we routinely picked up phones are already behind us, and charity helplines of all stripes will fade in importance over the next few years. To continue their mission, the Samaritans might believe, they need to find more ways of reaching people... not just new ways but groundbreaking new ways, like Samaritans Radar.

But they'd be wrong. The tools we use may be changing, yet people are still people, and human emotions take centuries to evolve. At times of crisis, many of us will always feel the urge to reach out to a stranger - someone we can safely tell our darkest fears, because we know that we'll never speak to them again.

So it's wrong to focus on the phone line; what matters is the person on the other end. If the Samaritans want to "do" Twitter, then perhaps they should ask some of their wonderful volunteers to monitor their own account? As things stand, they use it simply as a corporate mouthpiece, sternly warning that they "cannot" offer support if you try to contact them that way.

The Radar fiasco may yet have a happy ending, if it forces the Samaritans to focus again on the things that they do best. Given time, others will dream up better apps; Twitter will return to the fractious equilibrium it usually enjoys. And the Samaritans can go back to being the people I remember... the selfless heroes who always listen, and never, ever tell.