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The cry for help open to abuse and falling on the wrong ears

Samaritans have been forced to withdraw a Twitter-tracking service that flags users when friends might need help after a barrage of criticism

By Katie Wright

Called Samaritans Radar (www. samaritansradar.org), the app from the Samaritans charity wanted Twitter users to turn their "social net into a safety net".

It used an algorithm to 'read' tweets from your followers, searching for cry-for-help statuses that you might otherwise miss in the maelstrom of food, porn, pics and cat videos.

Radar then sent you an email when certain trigger words, or phrases like "need someone to talk to", were spotted possibly indicating a person is finding it hard to cope and offered advice on what to do next.

The app was intended to "encourage people to look out for one another online, helping them to reach out and offer support", said Samaritans' Joe Ferns.

But after less than 10 days online, the suicide-prevention group was forced to pull the plug, citing "serious concerns raised by some people with mental health conditions using Twitter".

A petition on Change.org had called for the 'surveillance system' to be shut down saying it breached people's privacy by collecting and analysing tweets without consent.

Plus, by letting them sign up and find out when their victims are at their most vulnerable, it gives stalkers, or bullies, an extra weapon in their arsenal of abuse.

As for identifying at-risk individuals, the app wasn't actually very effective. According to tests, not one out of 23 dangerous phrases including "I'm going to shoot myself" were picked up, which doesn't bode well for people who might think they can rely on the Radar for support.

It had a sarcasm problem, too. Search "going to kill myself" and you'll as likely find tweets about the John Lewis Christmas ad as any serious suicide threats, but the app couldn't differentiate.

"Withdraw it now, and have a rethink," IT lecturer Paul Bernal had advised in a blog post, saying The Samaritans wasn't doing the one thing it's meant to do best - listening.

But evidently they have listened to the feedback, saying the app has been suspended "for further consideration", and that they are "testing a number of potential changes and adaptations to the app to make it as safe and effective as possible for both subscribers and their followers".

Is that even possible? Critics are doubtful. Given that it's hard to imagine that the tool could be tweaked enough to make it acceptable to the deluge of detractors, it doesn't look like Samaritans will be back on the Radar anytime soon.

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