Social media app Whisper, a supposedly anonymous way for users to post online confessions, is now facing privacy questions from a U.S. senator after reports that it tracks locations of users and has shared their information with other companies.
Whisper, which bills itself as the "safest place on the Internet," has been tracking the locations of users it finds interesting and offered to share some user information with The Guardian, according to stories in the newspaper this month.
Those alleged practices have raised the ire of privacy-minded Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "While Whisper may provide its users a unique social experience, the allegations in recent media accounts are serious, and users are entitled to privacy policies that are transparent, disclosed, and followed by the company," Rockefeller wrote in a letter to WhisperText CEO Michael Heyward this week.
Rockefeller's letter questions relationships between Whisper and media outlets. "It is questionable, at best, whether users seeking to post anonymously on the 'safest place on the Internet' would expect that WhisperText has information-sharing relationships with third parties such as media organizations," he wrote.
Whisper didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Rockefeller's letter, but Heyward disputed some of The Guardian's report in a lengthy blog post last week.
Whisper does not actively track users, and it does not collect names, email addresses and other personally identifiable information from users, he wrote. The app does not collect GPS information from users unless they opt in, he wrote, and if they opt in, the app randomizes the GPS data "to help preserve your anonymity."
The app does collect IP addresses from users making "it possible to infer your city, state and country," he wrote. The app does use anonymous data to "glean important insights about our world," he added.
Whisper was founded "to give people a safe place to be authentic," he wrote. "For that reason our top priority is to ensure people feel comfortable sharing their most intimate and personal thoughts. So you can imagine our dismay when one of our media partners, the Guardian, published a series of stories questioning our commitment to your privacy."
While Whisper was disappointed with "the Guardian's approach, we welcome the discussion," Heyward added. "We realize that we're not infallible, and that reasonable people can disagree about a new and quickly evolving area like online anonymity."
Rockefeller's letter requests a briefing from WhisperText. His letter asks Heyward whether the app tracks user location, how long the app retains user data, and what its third-party sharing practices are.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.