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Private fears in public places

A lot has been written this week about the Samaritans' peculiar decision to release the Radar app, which monitors people's followers' tweets in case they need help, pulled minutes before this column was posted. It's a nice bit of mathematical exposition on the reach of social media to note that it only took a little over 3,000 people activating the app to have Radar monitoring 1.64 million Twitter accounts.

A petition asks Twitter to shut the app shut down, while. IT Pro notes a large number of both false positives (tweets incorrectly identified as worrying) and false negatives (tweets the app ought to have spotted). The Guardian says the Information Commissioner is looking into the myriad complaints.

The most peculiar aspect of this is that the Samaritans are not online newcomers. Instead, they have a long history going back to the mid-1990s, when it opened up an email account and, if I remember correctly, a conference on CIX. Twenty years ago, I remember (perhaps incorrectly) being told that relatively few people used email to access their services, but those that did tended to be the most isolated and desperate.

Legally, the Samaritans may be right (IANAL) to argue that Radar does not break the law. Data protection principles ban collecting data for one stated purpose and reusing it without consent for a different one; but the Samaritans do not own or operate either Twitter or the tweets the app analyzes, which were, of course, publicly posted on a service that everyone knows is searched and analyzed by advertisers looking for appropriate targets. Yet it feels completely that an organization whose only goal is to help people has acted in this way.

The answer, I think, lies in an October 2003 posting by Danny O'Brien in which he discusses the Net's inability to support "public-private" spaces. If you have a private conversation with a friend in a busy pub, the fact that you are in a public space filled with passers-by doesn't lessen your expectation of (mostly) privacy. You're talking to your friend, not to the waitress who takes away your empty glasses or the people eavesdropping at the next table. If you expressed despair in that conversation, you would not be at all pleased if someone came over and interrupted and said to your friend - not even to you - "Are you worried about him? Do you think he might be suicidal? Do you want us to help?" Even while recognizing (eventually) that the interloper was well-meaning, I imagine anger, harsh words, and a quick departure.

Danny's posting makes this key point: "They are not talking to *you*."

In the physical world, social norms hold that when a private conversation takes place in public even if we can hear it we pretend otherwise. Mobile phones have disrupted this imaginary Cone of Silence by allowing people to dissociate their loud, lengthy, one-sided, public conversations from the others sharing the same space, who may stare at each other amazed at the detail being disclosed. Would The Samaritans station people in coffee shops to monitor these conversations and offer an assessment if the overheard half sounded as though the person on the other end were upset? Highly unlikely.

Which all leads me to suspect that the often-discussed distancing effect of digital media has a role to play here. That's obviously not the only factor - The Samaritans would surely think it wrong to hack into people's email to monitor their state of mind - but it's a contributor. The people leaving messages on social media are not always easy to discern behind the user names and raw text.

The security services have been arguing for some time that data collection (as in mass surveillance) is innocuous if it's not monitored by humans - that automated surveillance is not an invasion of privacy. I've tried in the past to outline why I think this is wrong: that the collection itself does damage. Jay Stanley argues that what matters most is not whether robots or humans do the collecting but the resulting "reverberations" throughout one's life. One such reverberation is chilled speech. Probably most distressed people consider carefully what they can tell their friends without alarming them.

Whether the organization has broken the law misses the point. Lawrence Lessig, among others, has noted three ways humans create social order: law, code, and norms. The Samaritans began with poorly considered code, and have sought to back it up with law. Instead, what matters here - leaving aside the knotty and complex questions of how to treat people with mental disorders - is norms. The Samaritans' response - telling people to "opt out" by taking their tweets private, or to join the organization's' whitelist - is analogous to advising you to take your pub conversation home if you don't want to be interrupted. The Samaritans' first clue that it was disconnected from our social norms should have come when it drafted its own press release calling Twitter an important surveillance tool. That's not what most of us mean by "social media".


Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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