‘Anonymous’ messaging app Whisper shared information with US – report

17 Oct 2014

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Smartphone messaging app Whisper has come under fire for allegedly tracking the location of users who have specifically asked not to be followed.

According to multiple reports in The Guardian, Whisper – which allows users to send messages and receive replies anonymously – has also been sharing information tracked from American military compounds with the US Department of Defense.

The newspaper uncovered these practices during a recent three-day trip to the firm’s Los Angeles headquarters. Journalists were given access to the company’s back-end system used to analyse messages posted and spoke in length to many employees.

The Guardian discovered that messages users believed to have been deleted were actually collated in a searchable database despite Whisper’s stated policy of storing the data only for “a brief period of time”.

It was also reported that the company employ 200 people in the Philippines to monitor messages posted on the app, which included highlighting potentially newsworthy posts among their tasks. 

Having been informed on 9 October that the reports would be published, Whisper quickly made changes to its terms and conditions, including updating its policy on tracking geolocations to include the warning, “Please bear in mind that, even if you have disabled location services, we may still determine your city, state, and country location based on your IP address (but not your exact location).”

Whisper responds to claims it tracked users’ locations

Whisper has since responded to the reports by releasing a statement to Business Insider. The company categorically denies tracking users’ locations against their will but admitted the information it receives can pinpoint their whereabouts to within 500 metres.

“We neither receive nor store geographical co-ordinates from users who opt out of geolocation services,” read the statement. 

“User IP addresses may allow very coarse location to be determined to the city, state, or country level.”

“Even for users who opt into geolocation services, the location information that we do store is obscured to within 500 metres of their smartphone device’s actual location.”

The company also denied its Filipino operation participates in identifying Whispers that are potentially newsworthy. It did admit working alongside the US military, but claimed it was only in an attempt to lower suicide rates. Given the anonymous nature of the app, users posting about suicide is quite frequent.

“We are not sharing specific user data with any organisation. We noticed how frequently suicide is mentioned among those living on US military bases or compounds and reached out to organizations to see how we could work together to address this important issue.”

Mobile image via Shutterstock

Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com