Pando

Guardian claims anonymous app Whisper tracks its users; Whisper EIC calls report "a pack of vicious lies."

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 16, 2014

From The News Desk

[UPDATE: Whisper EIC Neetzan Zimmerman has launch into a tweetstorm, saying it only tracks location for users who opt into sharing that information, the location data is "heavily fuzzed" to 500 meters away, and exact location data is never stored]

[UPDATE 2: Whisper sent the following statement to Pando in an email: "Whisper does not collect nor store any personally identifiable information from users and is anonymous. There is nothing in our geolocation data that can be tied to an individual user and a user’s anonymity is never compromised. Whisper does not follow or track users. The Guardian’s assumptions that Whisper is gathering information about users and violating user’s privacy are false."]

If a new report from the Guardian is to be believed, the anonymous messaging app Whisper isn't nearly as anonymous as it claims.

The outlet reports that the company tracks its users' locations, shares information with the Department of Defense, and stores data on its servers indefinitely. It doesn't store its users' names or phone numbers, but with all that other information, how hard would it really be for the company to learn the identity of a given Whisperer?

Whisper's editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmerman has vehemently denied the charges on Twitter, calling them "a pack of vicious lies." (Let's not forget this is the same guy said that the truth doesn't matter as much as clicks).

If even some of what the Guardian reports is true, however, these are potentially damning accusations for a company that claims to be the safest place on the Internet. After all, Whisper benefits from users who believe that anything they share to the service is truly anonymous. But perhaps worst of all, the Guardian says it didn't uncover the problems after a long investigation -- Whisper allegedly bragged about them in a meeting the publication had a few weeks ago to see if there was any potential for a content-sharing partnership between the two companies.

That raises more questions than it answers. Would Whisper really think that the Guardian, of all news sources, wouldn't be troubled by a tech company secretly monitoring its users and giving some of that information to the United States government? Did they show these capabilities to other media companies it's formed partnerships with it? A spokersperson for one of these companies, Buzzfeed, tells Pando in an email, "We’re taking a break from our partnership until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy."

On one level, it would make sense for Whisper to gather some of this information. The company is attempting to build itself atop dual platforms: one that allows people to share stories without fear of reprisal, and one that turns those stories into news items for media organizations. The second platform can't be built alongside the first without Whisper building a system that can somehow tell if a story's at least potentially accurate; gathering some location data would probably do the trick.

But gathering that data after users have specifically requested that their location not be tracked, even if the technologies used to do so offer only a high-level view of where a user has traveled, would be indefensible. Even worse, it would be technological surveillance justified by the thin veneer of "reporting."

Whether true or not, this episode highlights the dangers of tech companies lattempting to do journalism. There are certain ethical limits that traditional media companies must abide, and not tracking someone against their wishes is perhaps the most important among them. It can either be a technology company that provides some information to its media partners, or it can be a media company that relies on user-generated content which cannot be verified without user consent.

If only someone had raised concerns about the ethics of using truly anonymous sources in news stories based on image macros shared from someone's smartphone... oh, wait a minute. I did. Twice. And even if the Guardian's piece is as faulty as Zimmerman claims, those concerns still stand, and I doubt this will be the last time Whisper finds itself under the spotlight for its journalistic ambitions.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]