Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
On January 28 — which is Data Privacy Day and Data Protection Day in the United States and 50 other countries — Politico reported that the Crisis Text Line, a suicide prevention service and non-profit available in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Ireland, had been providing “a sliced and repackaged version of” data collected from the text-based messages between staff at the organization and clients seeking assistance, to a for-profit organization “to create and market customer service software.”
At a time when multiple public figures are believed to have died by suicide in the last month — Hyattsville mayor Kevin Ward, musician Ian Alexander, Jr., and Extra contributor Cheslie Kryst among them — the revelations about the Crisis Text Line has caused them to dedicate resources to protecting their reputation, and influenced further questioning into the practices of other suicide prevention services.
INTO reached out to three of those services to ask for information which could clarify what partnerships they have and what data they may share that could affect potential clients.
As detailed in Politico‘s initial report, the Crisis Text Line (CTL) not only founded and maintains a financial ownership share in Loris.ai, a for-profit corporation seeking to make “customer support more human, empathetic, and scalable,” but that the Text Line and Loris.ai shared the same CEO, Nancy Lublin, for “at least a year and a half.” (Linkedin analysis shows Lublin was the CEO that the Text Line and Loris.ai shared, for at least 13 months.)
Not only does Loris.ai receive data from CTL, but they still have an agreement to share revenue with the non-profit and continue to pay them to use office space. “Simply put, why sell t-shirts when you can sell the thing your organization does best?” CTL described their partnership with Loris.ai in a 2018 blog post. CTL since updated the blog post to claim they “anonymize” any data.
This was not the Crisis Text Line’s first time in the news for negative attention not directly regarding their services. In 2020, Lublin was fired after her and multiple staff members at CTL engaged in alleged racist behavior for years, from Lublin voicing a Black character in a Text Line video to giving a Black employee a “Ph.D. in chicken wings.” Employees staged a walk out and both Crisis Text Line and DoSomething, the teen support organization Lublin was also CEO of for the first three years of CTL’s creation, both began trending for their inaction. Teen Vogue reported that as of September 2020, neither organization had a human resources department and there was no structure for accountability while working under Dublin.
At least one board member, Danah Boyd, who studies social media and conducts research for a subsidiary of Microsoft, admitted, “I was wrong when I agreed to this relationship.”
In 2021, a former volunteer quit and started a Change.org petition demanding CTL “to phase out its practice of monetizing crisis conversations as data, as soon as possible.” It reached over 250 signatures on January 31.
After the story came out, the Crisis Text Line took to Twitter, claiming, “A recent story cherry-picked and omitted information about our data privacy policies.” They then proceeded to write a series of tweets explaining their data-sharing partnership, which was not well received.
The tone of this thread is so weird. The issue isn’t whether there’s PII included. Nobody cares how much those practices are praised, either. The issue is that you think extracting and monetizing data from interactions with the most vulnerable people is fine.
— Heather Merrick (@heather_merrick) January 30, 2022
I don't CARE that my name is not on it. I care that my pain is being turned into a product.
— Tchr Beth (@hedgehog_revolt) January 30, 2022
When Shawn Rodriguez, @CrisisTextLine VP and general counsel, says: "sensitive data from conversations is not commercialized, full stop", he's taking advantage of the phrase "sensitive data".
The US, unlike the EU/UK with GDPR, does not have the concept of "sensitive data".
— Avi 🐰🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ (@_llzes) January 28, 2022
Later on January 31, CTL announced they have ended their data-sharing partnership with Loris.ai. “We understand that you don’t want Crisis Text Line to share any data with Loris,” they claimed — although they added right after, “even though the data is handled securely, anonymized and scrubbed of personally identifiable information.” CTL also asked Loris.ai to delete any data it had received from the non-profit over their four year relationship and created a Google Form requesting “ideas” for improving their practices.
Politico reported that the decision came “faced questions from data privacy experts, a U.S. senator and even some of its own volunteers about its practice of sharing data.”
For LGBTQ people, the developments at the Crisis Text Line affects three issues of the utmost consequences facing us and our community: alleged discrimination, lack of privacy, and suicide. When faced with one of these problems, the last thing people hope to deal with is the other.
The CDC reports suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-34. The ongoing pandemic, sociopolitical turmoil, and other factors may contribute to increases in possible deaths by suicide. (CTL and former volunteers reported a substantive increase in the number of clients they received contact from since the beginning of March 2020.)
The Williams Institute states that a 2016 review of research found 17% of queer cisgender adults had attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared with 2.4% of the general U.S. population. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 82% of respondents reported having considered suicide at some point in their life, and 48% had done so in the year prior to their response. 51% of the survey’s respondents who experienced at least four instances of anti-transgender discrimination and violence had made an attempt in the year prior.
The point being, suicidality becomes even more of a possibility when you’re gay, queer, trans or non-conforming or witnessing or experiencing discrimination or not receiving privacy, or a combination of these and other issues. When suicide prevention services such as crisis messaging applications or hotlines are often the last line of defense we have before someone loses their life to suicide, it is not ideal for the integrity, biases, and/or business practices of the service to have an impact on how those services are provided.
Based on the statements of volunteers, staff members, and even board members of the Crisis Text Line, that was what appeared to be happening.
In light of the Crisis Text Line’s controversial actions raising concerns for privacy for those in crisis, INTO reached out to the Trevor Project, the Trans Lifeline, and the organization that operates the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and asked for clarification about their partnerships and/or data sharing policies.
The Trevor Project has clarified to INTO that the policy that described passing information to third parties only applied to visitors to their website, not their hotline or other crisis services. The organization’s use and collection of data is divided into three sections: “The Trevor Project’s Website,” “Crisis Services,” and “Donations.” The mentioned portion of the policy cited in Politico only applies to use of the website.
“For many LGBTQ youth in crisis, The Trevor Project is the only place they can find support, empathy, and non-judgment. We never share crisis services personal data with for-profits, to make money, or to power advertising. We have not and will not ever share crisis services personal data to for-profits, or otherwise use it for any commercial purposes whatsoever,” a spokesperson for the organization told INTO.
In March 2021, the Trevor Project did create a “Crisis Contact Simulator” in collaboration with Google.org via funding and engineers. The Hill reported at the time that “For privacy reasons, the training simulator doesn’t use actual conversations between counselors and any of the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ youth that have reached out for help. Instead, it uses mock conversations between trained volunteers, as well as language gleaned from an analysis of posts on TrevorSpace, the organization’s online social networking community for LGBTQ+ youth.”
The organization reiterated that to INTO. “Our corporate partners provide us with essential monetary support to keep our life-affirming crisis services operating 24/7 and free for LGBTQ youth in crisis. Our partnerships also help scale our key program areas and develop new innovations in suicide prevention and crisis intervention. In addition, we may consult partners on how to cultivate more inclusive, affirming cultures for LGBTQ people within their own community. We do not provide crisis contact personal information to our corporate partners.
“We do not share personal crisis services data with partners or third party clients. In a limited number of legally permitted circumstances (i.e. if a young person is an imminent risk to themself or others), we may contact emergency services or a child welfare agency,” The Trevor Project concluded.
The Trans Lifeline, also a non-profit, began operating in 2014, and in addition to providing a hotline for suicide prevention in the United States and Canada, they also provide microgrants to trans people in crisis. Their website states the organization as a whole is “for the trans community, by the trans community.” It is currently led by Taegen Meyer, a Black-Chicana queer nonbinary trans woman serving as interim executive director.
The Trans Lifeline website also has posts dedicated to addressing privacy concerns prospective clients and website visitors may have, such as a “Digital Privacy for Trans Folk” explainer and a Q&A with Yana Calou, the organization’s first-ever director of advocacy, who uses they/them pronouns.
Calou told INTO via email: “Since our founding, our policy has been to never use risk assessments or call police or emergency services without a caller’s explicit request, no matter what the situation is. We do not use any geolocating surveillance or call tracing on any calls, and we do not have any partnerships with police or emergency services.
Regarding contact of outside services, Calou said, “If a caller requests a call to 911, we walk the caller through the potential implications of that call, including police arrival at their location, potential arrest, police force, and forced psychiatric hold. If the caller still wishes to call 911, we’d assist them – only with that informed consent. All our calls are encrypted.”
They remind prospective clients, as they disclose on their website, that the Trans Lifeline does “reserve the right to report any call containing credible threats of violence to others and to comply with laws regarding suspected child abuse and neglect,” in compliance with state-mandated reporting laws.
Calou disclosed that “We use Twilio’s API [application programming interface] for our hotline, but we do not share any data, anonymized or otherwise with any for or not-for-profit partners.” Otherwise, “There never has been nor will there ever be a situation where direct info or data provided… by clients contacting [us] while contemplating suicide or self-harm, is shared with third-party clients.”
The Trans Lifeline also has this tweet pinned on their Twitter profile:
Things to know when you call us:
1. We don't geolocate you or ask you to provide any identifying information.
— Trans Lifeline (@TransLifeline) January 13, 2022
2. There are no questions or assessments you have to answer. You don’t have to know what you want to say, but what happens on your call is up to YOU.
— Trans Lifeline (@TransLifeline) January 13, 2022
By contrast, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free confidential crisis services provider that is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the United States’ Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The government does not directly operate the Lifeline, instead providing a grant to fund it to an independent organization, which administers it and oversees the Lifeline.
Since its creation in 2005, the grant has been awarded to Vibrant Emotional Health, a non-profit previously known as the Mental Health Association of New York City. Vibrant also administers the accompanying Veterans Crisis Line, and separately the Disaster Distress Helpline. The Lifeline’s website states that oversight is independently conducted by a research team at Columbia University. Their social media (@800273TALK on Twitter) also reminds visitors that prospective clients “don’t have to be suicidal to call.”
In a statement to INTO, Vibrant reassured that they are “a free and confidential service available 24/7 to anyone in the United States in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. People can reach a trained counselor who is part of the Lifeline’s national network of independent, local crisis centers by calling or texting 1-800-273-8255, or chatting via our website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.”
They further stated, “The privacy and safety of those who contact the Lifeline are paramount. Vibrant does not sell Lifeline user data or use data to sell products. Vibrant does partner with university-based researchers for suicide prevention research and evaluations of Lifeline services. All of the research and evaluations are conducted following strict data protocols established by the research institutions.”
Last year, the FCC announced they will allow telecommunication to the three-digit number “9-8-8” to connect users directly to the Lifeline beginning this July. Vibrant will also administer the grant provided to bring the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the three-digit, nationwide service.
Regarding their relationship with emergency services, Vibrant stated, “Less than two percent of Lifeline calls involve emergency services. Information about contacts may be provided to emergency services in these situations. When emergency services are involved, over half of these emergency dispatches occur with the caller’s consent.”
If at any point, for any reason, you do not feel totally confident in using one of the services listed above, you should know that there are other options that are waiting to help you. For example, another crisis service that does not contact emergency services without permission is BlackLine, which performs counseling “through an unapologetic Black, LGBTQ and Black Femme lens.” While it is “geared towards the Black, Black LGBTQI, Brown, Native and Muslim community,” their site notes that “no one will be turned away from the Hotline.”
Their hotline is not currently 24 hours due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they still offer 24/7 services by text. The BlackLine can be reached at 1 (800) 604-5841.
LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG offers a number of other options, including The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline at (888) 843-4564, and the GLBT National Youth Talkline at (800) 246-7743. For youth looking for advice or assistance, there is also The National Runaway Safeline at (800) RUNAWAY, The True Colors United organization servicing LGBTQ youth facing housing insecurity at (212) 461-4401, and the Self Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E) website and information line providing resources for people facing self-harm issues at selfinjury.com and (800) DONTCUT.
Those in need of assistance regarding HIV/AIDS issues can contact the National AIDS Hotline at (800) 342-AIDS and the AIDS in Prison Project Hotline at (718) 378-7022. Those facing abuse or violence can also contact the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 and (800) 787-3224 for teletypewriter (TTY) users, as well as the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at (800) 656-HOPE and (800) 810-7440 (TTY).
LGBTQ people dealing with drug or substance use issues can contact the Pride Institute, 24/7, at (800) 547-7433