Bioethics Blogs

Twitter, Apps, and Depression

The Samaritans have launched a controversial new app that alerts Twitter users when someone they ‘follow’ on the site tweets something that may indicate suicidal thoughts.

To use the app, named ‘Samaritan Radar’, Twitter members must visit the Samaritans’ website, and choose to activate the app on their device. Having entered one’s twitter details on to the site to authorize the app, Samaritan Radar then scans the Twitter users that one ‘follows’, and uses an algorithm to identify phrases in tweets that suggest that the tweeter may be distressed. For example, the algorithm might identify tweets that involve phrases like “help me”, “I feel so alone” or “nobody cares about me”. If such a tweet is identified, an email will be sent to the user who signed up to Samaritan Radar asking whether the tweet should be a cause for concern; if so, the app will then offer advice on what to do next.

Whilst no-one doubts the good intentions of the charity in developing the app, many Twitter users have strongly objected to Samaritan Radar, claiming that it raises major privacy concerns. Whilst Joe Ferns, the executive director of policy, research and development at Samaritans told the BBC that “Radar is only picking up tweets that are public, giving you an opportunity to see tweets that you would have seen anyway”, opponents have argued that those being monitored by the system are not aware that this is the case.

I shall not press the privacy objection here; for the record, I do not believe that it is particularly convincing.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.