Crisis helplines move online; why Bletchley Park couldn’t happen now

Guardian Voluntary Sector Network has published my piece on crisis helplines moving from telephone to online: the NSPCC’s ChildLine now handles half of its contacts online, the Samaritans receives 18% of contacts through text messages and emails and BB Group, which runs advice services for young people, is entirely digital.

The Samaritans, which has just turned 60see also this BBC News report, which covers its use of new channels – finds that those asking it for support through SMS or email are more likely to have suicidal feelings (almost half, compared to one in six of those calling). Elaine Chambers of ChildLine said the NSPCC helpline sees something similar, although it depends on the individual:

There is some evidence that the more high-risk things come to us online, because it can be easier to express yourself about the really difficult things in your life online.

But digital channels do add a new issue for helplines, as everyone who has misunderstood an email knows, according to a Samaritans’ spokesperson:

Email and SMS contacts provide less verbal cues than a phone call does or facial and body language cues as with a face to face contact. Email training [for Samaritans volunteers] in particular emphasises that statements or questions may be interpreted differently when written down, rather than spoken.

Neither helpline charity plans to stop picking up the phone – here are the full contact details for the Samaritans; and for ChildLine. On the latter’s website, the balloon game – tie your problems to a balloon, then watch them float away – is worth a go whatever your age.

Meanwhile, as the Edward Snowden NSA/GCHQ revelations continue, I argue on the Register that state secrets seem to stop being secret rather faster than in Bletchley Park days:

Bletchley Park relied on total, long-term secrecy over its methods. If the Nazi regime had realised that the Allies were breaking its “unbreakable” Enigma machines on a routine basis, the game would have been up. But that secret was kept for the entire war and for three decades beyond.

The expiry period for such secrets is a bit shorter these days: it has taken less than two years for GCHQ’s Tempora project’s access to undersea cables to become common global knowledge. So what has changed?

Firstly, whistle-blowers have become much more efficient, even in the last decade… As Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and WikiLeaks demonstrated, the combination of networked secret agencies and high-capacity storage devices can allow one person to do an enormous amount of leaking, and with the actual documents rather than deniable claims.

Read the full article here.