Anonymous sharing app Whisper under a cloud over user location data

The app is accused by The Guardian of tracking users' locations

Anonymous sharing app Whisper has come under a cloud after a newspaper report charged it with tracking the location of its users, including those who have asked not to be followed.

Whisper, which is described as a platform to anonymously share "innermost thoughts, secrets, and feelings," is one of many privacy focused applications that became attractive after revelations last year by former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, that the agency was secretly tracking people online both in the U.S. and abroad. It also benefited from user concerns about exposing their identities on social media websites.

The Guardian report on Thursday will likely lead to a debate about how location data should be handled by services that promise users anonymity.

Whisper has a mapping tool that allows staff "to filter and search GPS data, pinpointing messages to within 500 meters of where they were sent," The Guardian newspaper wrote. The rough location of users who have turned off geolocation is arrived at by using the IP data from smartphones, it reported.

The Guardian came to know about this practice during a visit last month to WhisperText, the company behind the app, where the newspaper was exploring an "expanded journalistic relationship" with the social app.

WhisperText said in a statement Thursday that it 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," it said. "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."

The social media app's editor-in-chief, Neetzan Zimmerman wrote on Twitter that the Guardian story is "lousy with falsehoods, and we will be debunking them all." He wrote in another tweet that the Guardian "made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it."

Information gathered by Whisper from smartphones it knows are used from military bases is shared with the U.S. Department of Defense, and the company is also developing a version of its app that will conform with Chinese censorship regulations, according to The Guardian.

User data, including deleted Whisper posts, are gathered in a searchable database, the newspaper wrote.

WhisperText released Thursday detailed replies to The Guardian's questions. It said that it does not receive or store geographical coordinates from users who have opted out of geolocation services. "User IP addresses may allow very coarse location to be determined to the city, state, or country level," it added. Even for users who have opted in, the location information stored is blurred to within 500 meters of their smartphone's actual location.

The company's privacy policy, updated Monday, allows the app to determine the user's location by city, state or country based on the IP address, even when location services have been disabled. It also allows the company to disclose information such as posts, IP addresses and the user's general location to comply with laws. The Guardian said the terms of service were updated after Whisper found out that the newspaper planned to run the story.

WhisperText said it had noticed how frequently suicide was mentioned by people living on US military bases or compounds and "reached out to organizations to see how we could work together to address this important issue." The information shared was not personally identifiable, it added. The app said it did not have a service in China.

WhisperText highlights and curates thematic narratives from users who are not personally identifiable either to Whisper employees or to the public. The Guardian has partnered and worked with Whisper since February this year and published stories using Whisper posts, with full understanding of its guidelines, WhisperText said.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
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