Doing Good for Data Harvesting

March 10, 2022

What a class act. We learn from TechDirt that a “Suicide Hotline Collected, Monetized the Data of Desperate People, Because Of Course it Did.” The culprit is Crisis Text Line, one of the largest nonprofit support services for suicidal individuals in the US. Naturally, the organization is hiding behind the assertion of anonymized data. Writer Karl Bode tells us:

“A Politico report last week highlighted how the company has been caught collecting and monetizing the data of callers… to create and market customer service software. More specifically, Crisis Text Line says it ‘anonymizes’ some user and interaction data (ranging from the frequency certain words are used, to the type of distress users are experiencing) and sells it to a for-profit partner named Crisis Text Line has a minority stake in, and gets a cut of their revenues in exchange. As we’ve seen in countless privacy scandals before this one, the idea that this data is ‘anonymized’ is once again held up as some kind of get out of jail free card. … But as we’ve noted more times than I can count, ‘anonymized’ is effectively a meaningless term in the privacy realm. Study after study after study has shown that it’s relatively trivial to identify a user’s ‘anonymized’ footprint when that data is combined with a variety of other datasets. For a long time the press couldn’t be bothered to point this out, something that’s thankfully starting to change.”

Well that is something, we suppose. The hotline also swears the data is only being wielded for good, to “put more empathy into the world.” Sure.

Bode examines several factors that have gotten us here as a society: He points to the many roadblocks corporate lobbyists have managed to wedge in the way of even the most basic privacy laws. Then there is the serious dearth of funding for quality mental health care, leaving the vulnerable little choice but to reach out to irresponsible outfits like Crisis Text Line. And let us not forget the hamstrung privacy regulators at the FTC. That agency is understaffed and underfunded, is often prohibited from moving against nonprofits, and can only impose inconsequential penalties when it can act. Finally, the whole ecosystem involving big tech and telecom is convoluted by design, making oversight terribly difficult. Like similar misdeeds, Bode laments, this scandal is likely to move out of the news cycle with no more repercussion than a collective tut-tut. Stay tuned for the next one.

Cynthia Murrell, March 10, 2022


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