One Text at a Time
Crisis Text Line CTO Jason Bennett shares his insight on the
technology behind this helpline using text to reach people in need of
counseling during times of crisis.
By Rahul R. Divekar and Nidhi Rastogi
Jason Bennett is a software engineer with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of New Mexico. He started his career as a software engineer at Motorola and rose to engineering manager at Google before becoming director of engineering and vice president of engineering at several other companies. Today,
he is CTO of Crisis Text Line, a not-for-profit organization operating throughout the U.S.
providing counseling by texting 741741. Originated from DoSomething.org, Crisis Text Line
has grown from serving two area codes to all 295 in the U.S. Here, Bennett details the
technology behind the platform that
enables the exchange of millions of
text messages, along with the many
technical issues that arise due to scalability and user concern over data privacy and security.
The following interview has been
condensed and edited for clarity.
XRDS: Describe your role as C TO of Crisis
JASON BENNE T T (JB): My primary
goal is the execution of technology,
planning and delivering on soft ware
stability, scalability, development, and
maintenance. I strive to make agile
product development better, lead
architectural discussions, and mentor and
develop the skills of my team.
Why did you choose phone text, which is
an uncommon medium for intervention?
JB: Earlier, at DoSomething.org, as
we received texts asking for help, we
recognized text is the primary means of
communication for a large segment of
the population. We wanted to reach out
to people whenever and wherever they
were. Recognizing there was a need and
a willingness to use text as a medium to
reach out for help is how Crisis Text Line
came into existence.
What made texting more effective
compared to the alternatives?
JB: We realized we could quickly
acquire a large corpus of data through this
medium that had not previously existed
and this data could be tremendously
useful in helping people more effectively
and in the prevention of mental health
issues. Texting also proved more effective
because people were more forthcoming
and shared more details through text
than through other media. In some cases,
where privacy is important, text proved
to be the solution, too. For example, when
a victim of domestic violence is still in
the home and wants to seek help, texting
keeps the conversation private from the
Apart from SMS-based phone texting, what
other texting platforms are available?
JB: We recently integrated our
platform with Facebook; we launched our
Kik (https://www.kik.com/) integration
earlier this year. The goal is to eventually
expand into any medium and to help people
whenever and wherever they are.
Do you plan to integrate voice
or video calls?
JB: We have considered both and
include it in our plan to think more about
them. However, text is our primary
platform for now, given that research
and observations have shown texting is
much more private, and users tend to be
How do you protect user data from misuse?
JB: Texter privacy is incredibly
important to us and we take it very
seriously. First, all sensitive data is
encrypted at rest and in transit. Second,
access to the data is restricted by a VPN
and protected by role-based authorization
and two-factor authentication, and
even access to the network that can
see this data is subject to secondary
authentication. Finally, and most
importantly, all personally identifiable
information (PII) is scrubbed from the data.