LIFELINE AUSTRALIA DATA COLLECTION
Not-for-profit crisis hotline Lifeline Australia offers 24/7 crisis support, mental health support and emotional assistance to everyday Australians struggling with the stresses of life. It is an organisation used by many.
On average, Lifeline receives a call every 30 seconds and is used by over one million Australians in need of crisis support every year. And with suicide being the leading cause of death amongst young Australians, organisations like Lifeline certainly make a difference.
However, this is a lot of private and sensitive data being funnelled through one organisation. Which should naturally raise privacy concerns over the handling of vulnerable Australians’ confidential conversations.
In light of POLITICO’s recent bombshell article, revealing that popular suicide hotline “Crisis Text Line” shared anonymised user data with their for-profit spin off company, Loris.ai – CONTX decided to ask the question:
How does Lifeline Australia use vulnerable Australian’s data?
LIFELINE DATA USE
Lifeline Australia ensures vulnerable Australian’s that their data is protected and not being shared with private third parties. However, Lifeline does have relationships with private third party data analytics organisations. Take Australian company and Microsoft partner, Data Addiction, for example.
In late September of 2021, it was reported that Lifeline Australia contracted Data Addiction to develop “a secure data platform that can act as a research hub, providing secure, controlled access to anonymised data for senior researchers at the Blackdog Institute, University of NSW and University of Canberra.”
This research hub is used to help Lifeline predict when the demand for their services is about to go gangbusters. It also helps researchers analyse trends of words and phrases associated with a person in crisis. Words like “paracetamol, desperation and can’t go on” are all red flags, according to Lifeline.
But though underlying intentions for collecting this data seem amicable, questions should be raised regarding Lifeline’s handling of vulnerable Australian’s private information – given the times we live in.
CONTX Media is not accusing Lifeline Australia, or Data Addiction of illegal, or unethical wrongdoing. But CONTX does believe it is imperative for organisations like Lifeline Australia to be held accountable, in order to ensure Australians in crisis are making the most informed decisions about their data.
Typical data anonymisation methods involve removing pieces of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from data sets such as: names, phone numbers, email addresses, while introducing ‘noise’ into the data, according to industry experts.
But the fact is, in an age where most online services are free – your data is the product. And it has been well established that typical data anonymisation methods, used by companies and governmental organisations globally, are not as secure as they are led on to be.
2019 research published in Nature Communications revealed that Americans can be “correctly located in an anonymize[d] database 81% of the time” using just three pieces of basic information (zip code, gender, and date of birth), as reported by MIT Technology Review.
This number can get as high as 99.98% accuracy using 15 data points. The paper also states that typical anonymisation methods are “unlikely to satisfy the modern standards for anonymization set forth by [the] GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation),” the EU’s data protection regulator.
So the question becomes – are vulnerable Australian’s data sets really all that anonymous?
LIFELINE AUSTRALIA & DATA ADDICTION
CONTX reached out to Lifeline Australia’s National Media Relations Manager Richard Shute for comment on the matter. Shute made it clear – after deliberating with Lifeline’s internal data analytics team – that the nature of their relationship with Data Addiction was “not commercial in nature.”
He also assured CONTX not only that “clean data” is used (no names, no gender, no ISP, no post codes, no phone numbers, or identifiable data points) but this data is only made accessible, via their secure research hub, to internal Lifeline and university researchers.
Shute confirmed Lifeline uses private third parties “only when necessary to help deliver Lifeline’s services appropriately and ensure all help seeker and other data is stored and managed securely.” Also noting that Lifeline’s use of people’s data is “standard” in the crisis support industry and that Lifeline Australia would never share their data with private third parties.
“No data leaves the secure environment,” said Ben Johnson, Data Addictions Managing Director. Johnson also added that Data Addiction does not have access to any of Lifeline’s anonymised data.
Head of Architecture and Insights at Lifeline Australia, Mark West, added that that Lifeline has invested a “considerable amount” (time and money) to put “penetration-tested security” in place, to protect vulnerable Australian’s data.
CRISIS SUPPORT INDUSTRY
Given the evidence, it appears the crisis support industry in Australia operates very differently to the American industry; being somewhat private and commercialised.
So let’s hope the Australian industry stays that way and organisations like Lifeline Australia continue placing a heavy reverence on vulnerable Australians’ data protection rights. In order to avoid a similar case to the Crisis Text Line scandal exposed by POLITICO.
AND REMEMBER: If you, or someone you know, is going through a hard time – always reach out for help. Because you’re not alone.