Guardian claims "anonymous" app Whisper secretly tracks users, shares info with U.S. government


Whisper denies such claims, launches counter-offensive against the Guardian

An online war broke out yesterday between the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper and Whisper, the anonymizing app/social media platform which bills itself as the “safest place on the Internet.”

On Thursday, the Guardian published a series of apparently devastating exposés revealing that Whisper not only tracks its “anonymous” users (including some who had specifically opted “out of geolocation services,” but also “shares some information with [the] US Department of Defense” and that its “User data [is] collated and indefinitely stored in [a] searchable database.”

Representatives for the company claimed otherwise; Whisper's editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman took to his Twitter feed almost immediately, first to post: “The Guardian’s piece is lousy with falsehoods, and we will be debunking them all. Much more to come” followed by “The Guardian made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it.”

(The Guardian, in turn, responded by posting another story today, quoting and responding to those Tweets, among others.)

Claims & counter-claims

The Guardian's initial report claims that:

Whisper, the social media app that promises users anonymity and claims to be “the safest place on the internet”, is tracking the location of its users, including some who have specifically asked not to be followed.

The practice of monitoring the whereabouts of Whisper users – including those who have expressly opted out of geolocation services – will alarm users, who are encouraged to disclose intimate details about their private and professional lives.

Whisper is also sharing information with the US Department of Defense gleaned from smartphones it knows are used from military bases, and developing a version of its app to conform with Chinese censorship laws.

So just how and when did the Guardian discover these things? The story says it was “on a three-day visit to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters last month, as part of a trip to explore the possibility of an expanded journalistic relationship with Whisper.”

Zimmerman tweeted a series counter-claims, including a link to a lengthier response Whisper publicly posted on Scribd (which, unlike Twitter, does not limit explanations to 140 characters each):

“Whisper does not collect nor store any personally identifiable information (PII) from users and is anonymous. To be clear, Whisper does not collect nor store: name, physical address, phone number, email address, or any other form of PII. The privacy of our users is not violated in any of the circumstances suggested in the Guardian story. … The Guardian’s assumptions that Whisper is gathering information about users and violating user’s privacy are false.”

Suicide rate

As for information shared with the Department of Defense? In a series of Tweets, Zimmerman mentioned a study looking at the “number of word mentions and nothing more and all data is from OPT IN users;” apparently, the Defense Department wanted to know how many Whisper posts made from military bases contained the words “suicide” or “kill myself.” Zimmerman said Whisper took part in the study “because we, like most, would like to see the suicide rate of our servicemembers go down.”

Yet even that much information-sharing might be too much for users drawn to a service specifically because it promises complete anonymity and privacy. Last January, for example, when Whisper was still an exciting new addition to the social-media market, New York magazine's Daily Intelligencer blog wrote about the “angsty, affirming world of Whisper,” noting that “If you're older than 25, you may not have heard of Whisper. But the app — already popular among high-school and college students across the country — is quickly becoming the most interesting social network around.”

What was its appeal? The Daily Intelligencer spoke to CEO and co-founder Michael Heyward, who was 26 years old at the time, and paraphrased his arguments as as:

[O]ne benefit of Whisper's anonymity is that it allows for more honest communication – that, by removing the fear of repercussions and embarrassment, Whisper users can close the gap between the selves they create online and who they really are. And it's true that, unlike on Facebook and Instagram — where people announce engagements but never divorces, and where people always seem to be putting on a show for their friends — Whisper appears more in line with reality. It's also an affirming place, a place where outcasts can feel less marginalized, where people with obscure interests and experiences can find out that they're not alone. …

Unload baggage

The Intelligencer piece ended by saying “[T]here is a point to Whisper. Put simply, it's a place to unload baggage without consequences. Unlike on Facebook or Twitter, nobody will fire, judge, or humiliate me because of what I post there. And while I might not keep using Whisper routinely, it doesn't hurt to think about what benefits a little more anonymity might bring.”

It's debatable whether, for example, a young soldier who mentions “suicide” on Whisper would fear to do so again, if he finds out that the Department of Defense is collecting such statistics as “How many Whispers mentioning suicide have been made from the base at Guantanamo Bay?”

Still, that specific Guardian claim about information-sharing with the U.S. military, and Zimmerman's counter-claim that it was merely a word-count study, could be a case where both sides are telling the absolute truth – at least as they see it. But that's not true of other claims and counter-claims which contradict each other so badly that it's simply not possible for both to be true.

For example, the Guardian said that

“A team headed by Whisper’s editor-in-chief, Neetzan Zimmerman, is closely monitoring users it believes are potentially newsworthy, delving into the history of their activity on the app and tracking their movements through the mapping tool. Among the many users currently being targeted are military personnel and individuals claiming to work at Yahoo, Disney and on Capitol Hill.”

Yet Zimmerman told the Washington Post that this would be “technically impossible” and that the Guardian's claims were “false, that is 100% false.”

As of press time, Whisper, Zimmerman and the Guardian are still posting claims and counter-claims about each other. We'll keep you updated on any new developments.

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