Whisper, a social media start-up based in Southern California that allows users to anonymously post some of their deepest and darkest secrets, may not be all that secret after all. In a new report from The Guardian, Whisper is accused of regularly tracking its users’ whereabouts even if they have opted out of that feature. The Guardian also further alleged that Whisper was sharing that information with the US Department of Defense for a research study on suicides without obtaining consent from users.
Whisper vehemently denied the accusations saying The Guardian’s assumptions that Whisper is collecting information about users and violating user’s privacy are false.
“Whisper does not collect nor store: name, physical address, phone number, email address, or any other form” of publicly identifiable information, the company said. “The privacy of our users is not violated in any of the circumstances suggested in The Guardian story.”
The Guardian report claims Whisper has built an in-house mapping tool that enables staffers to filter and search GPS information and even pinpoint messages to within 500 meters of where they were sent. When a user turns off the app's geolocation features, the company can reportedly extract their location from IP data, while Whisper says that users must opt for that information to be collected.
"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's story explained.
The Guardian said they learned of this practice when its reporters were there on a three-day visit to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters last month to explore the possibility of a journalistic partnership with Whisper.
The Guardian report further says that Whisper keeps posts collated in a searchable database that users believe have been deleted. The company doesn’t collect information such a members’ names or phone numbers, but is storing records about the exact time and approximate location of all previous messages posted through the app. Information dating back to 2012 is being stored indefinitely, while Whisper’s policy states that data will be stored only for a brief period of time.
The publication claims Whisper apparently updated its terms of service just four days before the company learned that the Guardian had planned to publish the story. The new terms now permit the company to establish the general location of users that disable the app’s geolocation feature.