Whisper, the anonymity-centric smartphone app that’s marketed as being “the safest place on the internet,” is in hot water after being alleged by The Guardian of tracking users and sharing their info with governments.
On Thursday, journalists at the UK-based newspaper wrote that a recent visit to Whisper’s Venice Beach, California headquarters left reporters certain that, despite claims from the app’s developers, customers information is being stored on the company’s servers indefinitely and, in some instances, shared with law enforcement agencies, research groups and even the Department of Defense with little-to-no warning being given to users.
Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe — the Guardian journalists who detailed the Oct. 9 visit to Venice Beach in Thursday’s article — wrote that Whisper’s previously undocumented behavior “will alarm users,” especially because they “are encouraged to disclose intimate details about their private and professional lives” blatantly on the company’s website.
Whisper, its developers explain on the app’s site, “is a service that allows users to communicate by posting and viewing publicly available content and sending private messages,” and, “Unlike other services, users do not register for unique accounts on Whisper.” According to the Guardian, around 2.6 million “whispers” are sent through the app each day, meaning users are sending more than 100,000 messages every hour from smart phones, the likes of which often appear as geo-tagged images with anonymous-penned prose layered on top.
Whisper “is committed to being a safe place for our users to anonymously share their innermost thoughts, secrets and feelings. That’s why we place so much focus on protecting your privacy and personal information,” another portion of the website reads.
That’s not exactly correct, the Guardian alleged:
“User data, including Whisper postings that users believe they have deleted, is collated in a searchable database. The company has no access to users’ names or phone numbers, but is storing information about the precise time and approximate location of all previous messages posted through the app. The data, which stretches back to the app’s launch in 2012, is being stored indefinitely, a practice seemingly at odds with Whisper’s stated policy of holding the data only for ‘a brief period of time,’” the paper reported this week.
Additionally, the Guardian claimed that “Whisper has developed an in-house mapping tool that allows its staff to filter and search GPS data, pinpointing messages to within 500 meters of where they were sent,” which, according to the paper, “enables the company to monitor all the geolocated messages sent from the Pentagon and National Security Agency. It also allows Whisper to track an individual user’s movements over time.”
“When users have turned off their geolocation services, the company also, on a targeted, case-by-case basis, extracts their rough location from IP data emitted by their smartphone” the Guardian claimed.
Neetzan Zimmerman — the editor-in-chief of Whisper and a former writer at the gossip site Gawker — has since fired back at those accusations and others with a barrage of messages sent on Thursday from his Twitter account.