The company behind Whisper, the social media app that promises users anonymity and claims to be the “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.
The US version of the app, which enables users to publish short messages superimposed over photographs or other images, has attracted millions of users, and is proving especially popular among military personnel who are using the service to make confessions they would be unlikely to publish on Facebook or Twitter.
Currently, users of Whisper are publishing as many as 2.6m messages a day. Facebook is reportedly developing its own Whisper-style app for anonymous publishing. The trend toward anonymity in social media has some privacy experts concerned about security.
Approached for comment last week, Whisper said it “does not follow or track users”. The company added that the suggestion it was monitoring people without their consent, in an apparent breach of its own terms of service, was “not true” and “false”.
But on Monday – four days after learning the Guardian intended to publish this story – Whisper rewrote its terms of service; they now explicitly permit the company to establish the broad location of people who have disabled the app’s geolocation feature.
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.
The technology, for example, 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 witnessed this practice 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.
After reviewing Whisper’s back-end tools and speaking extensively with the company’s executives, the Guardian has also established that:
• 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”.
• 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.
• Whisper’s policy toward sharing user data with law enforcement has prompted it on occasions to provide information to both the FBI and MI5. Both cases involved potentially imminent threats to life, Whisper said, a practice standard in the tech industry. But privacy experts who reviewed Whisper’s terms of service for the Guardian said the company appeared to require a lower legal threshold for providing user information to authorities than other tech companies.
• The company is cooperating with the US Department of Defense, sharing information with researchers investigating the frequency of mentions of suicide or self-harm from smartphones that Whisper knows are being used from US military bases. Whisper stressed that “specific user data” is not being shared with the DoD, adding that the company was “proudly working with many organisations to lower suicide rates and the US military is among them”.
• Whisper is developing a Chinese version of its app, which received a soft-launch earlier this month. Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned in mainland China. Whisper executives said they had agreed to the demands China places on tech companies operating in its jurisdiction, including a ban on the use of certain words.
Whisper’s targeted monitoring of some people who use the app – even some of those who have declared they do not want to be followed by opting out of geolocation – is likely to surprise its users, who are drawn to the app by the bold promises the company makes about their anonymity.
“Whisper isn’t actually about concealing identity. It’s about a complete absence of identity,” the company’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Heyward, recently told Entrepreneur magazine. “The concept around Whisper is removing the concept of identity altogether, so you’re not as guarded.”
He has called Whisper the “safest place on internet” and portrays the app as a secure place in which users should feel free to express their innermost feelings and confessions.
Whisper, which was recently valued at over $200m, has grown rapidly since its launch two years ago. It is among the fleet of confessional apps, such as Secret and Yik Yak, which backers say enable users to be more candid than they are on other social media platforms.
To stamp out inappropriate behaviour, Whisper has an offshore base in the Philippines, where more than 100 employees screen messages 24 hours a day. Whisper described the process as “extremely secure”.
In an attempt to promote content posted on the app, Whisper has worked hard to build relationships with news organisations. Its longest-standing partnership is with Buzzfeed, and Whisper’s executives said they are now in discussions with newspapers and TV networks.
On Thursday, a Buzzfeed spokesperson said the news outlet is now halting its partnership with Whisper. “We’re taking a break from our partnership until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy,” a spokesperson said.
Over the last year, Whisper has promoted revelations posted by anonymous users about the dismissal of Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, andaccusations about Gwyneth Paltrow’s private life.
In September, Whisper returned to the headlines when an apparently suicidal man in Texas used the app to broadcast messages and photographs from the middle of a standoff with armed police.
Whisper’s in-house mapping tool identifies users who have posted in the vicinity of the National Security Agency, Maryland, using their GPS data. Occasionally, the company uses IP address location data to establish the rough location of some users who have opted out the app’s geolocation services. Photograph: Guardian
The Guardian had previously worked with Whisper to find Iraq war veterans who wanted to share their opinions of Isis, find an undocumented immigrant to write an opinion article and post people’s confessions about Valentine’s Day. At no point during those collaborations did Whisper indicate it was ascertaining the location of individual users who had disabled their geolocation feature.
The Guardian visited the Whisper offices to consider the possibility of undertaking other journalistic projects with the company and sent two reporters last month to look in detail at how the app operates. At no stage during the visit were the journalists told they could not report on the information shared with them.
The Guardian is no longer pursuing a relationship with Whisper.
Whisper introduced its optional geolocation feature earlier this year, enabling users to view other people’s messages that have been posted by users within a set-mile radius, known as the “nearby” function. Crucially, the app also contains a button that allows users to opt out of its geolocation service, a facility its terms state is “purely voluntarily”.
That system provided Whisper with a hoard of easily analysed location data from those who opted into the service, and the company has become increasingly open with journalists that its in-house technology allows it to locate users. The company now uses geolocation to make judgments about the “veracity” of users posting on the site.
In July, during the recent Israeli war in Gaza, Whisper was able to monitor Israeli Defense Force soldiers on the frontline. “We had 13 or 14 soldiers who we were tracking – every whisper they did,” one Whisper executive said during the Guardian’s visit.
Separately, Whisper has been following a user claiming to be a sex-obsessed lobbyist in Washington DC. The company’s tracking tools allow staff to monitor which areas of the capital the lobbyist visits. “He’s a guy that we’ll track for the rest of his life and he’ll have no idea we’ll be watching him,” the same Whisper executive said.
Now the company plans to make its database and a version of its mapping tool available to select journalists in the coming months.
When Guardian reporters visited Whisper last month, Zimmerman and another executive said that when they wanted to establish the location of individual users who are among the 20% who have opted out of geolocation services, they simply asked their technical staff to obtain the “latitude and longitude” of the phones they had used.
One of the users that Whisper suggested the Guardian could be interested in researching, for example, claimed to be soldier who could be imminently deployed to Iraq.
The user had apparently turned off their geolocation facility, denying the company permission to track them. Yet Whisper was able to ascertain the dates the user had been in Afghanistan and Fort Riley, Kansas.
Whisper later explained that when it wants to establish the location of users who have disabled their geolocation services, the company uses their IP location.
On Thursday last week, the Guardian contacted Whisper, explained it planned to write a story about the company’s internal practices and asked for comment.
Whisper acknowledged that it researches the location of specific users it believes are posting newsworthy information, but emphasised it typically uses GPS data.
Whisper stressed the IP location data it uses for people who have asked not to be followed is rough and unreliable.
“We occasionally look at user IP addresses internally to determine very approximate location,” the company said. “User IP addresses may allow very coarse location to be determined to the city, state or country level.”
It added: “Whisper does not request or store any personally identifiable information from users, therefore there is never a breach of anonymity. From time to time, when a user makes a claim of a newsworthy nature, we review the user’s past activity to help determine veracity.”
The company strongly rejected any assertion of wrongdoing. “The Guardian’s assumptions that Whisper is gathering information about users and violating user’s privacy are false,” it said. “The privacy of our users is not violated in any of the circumstances suggested in the Guardian story.”
Whereas the previous terms and conditions described all of Whisper’s tracking of user location as “voluntary”, the new terms now warn users to “bear in mind that, even if you have disabled location services, we may still determine your city, state, and country location”.
It now warns users that turning on the app’s geolocation feature may “allow others, over time, to make a determination as to your identity”.
Paul Lewis and Dominiic Rushe.
October 16, 2014