Whisper, darling child of the online anonymity surge, is going to war with the Guardian over a story saying the app tracks the identities and locations of some users.
Launched two years ago, Whisper says it’s the “safest place on the internet,” a social networking app that lets people anonymously share short messages — “whispers” — supposedly detached from any identifiable information.
But in a lengthy takedown published Thursday, the Guardian claims otherwise, saying Whisper uses a handful of tools to subvert its own claims of privacy and anonymity. Whisper, according to the Guardian report, tracks newsworthy users and uses roundabout methods of finding out the locations of users who decline to share it; the company then shares that information with third parties, including the U.S. government, the Guardian reported.
All of these claims, Whisper officials said, are patently false.
Whisper’s editor-in-chief, Neetzan Zimmerman, went into attack mode immediately after the story was published, saying it was a “pack of vicious lies” and that “the Guardian made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it.”
First response: The Guardian’s piece is lousy with falsehoods, and we will be debunking them all. Much more to come.
— Neetzan Zimmerman (@neetzan) October 16, 2014
Reached by phone, Zimmerman categorically denied the basis of the story, saying that while certain degrees of tracking (such as a city of location) are possible through simply connecting to the Internet, the methods the Guardian described are “either outright false or misguided or misinformed.”
“Clearly, their intention was for absolutely no reason to write a hit piece about us and try to scare away our users,” Zimmerman said, sounding irate at times.
The Guardian story describes techniques that Whisper allegedly uses to find “newsworthy” users, such as those who work at Yahoo and Disney, or on Capitol Hill. It also says there is a technical backdoor that allows Whisper to pinpoint the location of users who have declined to share their location with the app, and that Zimmerman and another executive had requested staff to exploit it.
But Zimmerman, fuming at the accusations, said such backdoors are “technically impossible.”
“That is false, that is 100 percent false,” he said. “That was never said by anyone. I have no idea where that quote came from. I have no idea what they’re talking about. I have never, ever, ever asked anybody in my life, and would never ask anybody, for information on a user who opted out of user location. That cannot be overemphasized. That is a 100 percent lie.”
Whisper employees can, however, search for keywords (analogous to a Twitter search) to find users and their “whispers” that may be interesting to some of its media partners, including BuzzFeed, which publishes an ongoing series of posts that highlight interesting or newsworthy messages on the service.
A BuzzFeed spokesman told Valleywag on Thursday: “We’re taking a break from our partnership until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy.”
Zimmerman also said the Guardian has had a months-long partnership with Whisper that used the very techniques the article decries.
“There are at least three Guardian stories written off Whisper, and two of which were using the methods the article is attacking,” Zimmerman said, adding that the outlet initiated the partnership. “The CEO and executive editors were in here, and they were all privy to all this information and explained to us that they were supportive of everything that they had seen.”
Guardian spokesman Gennady Kolker said the outlet “has no comment at this time.”
The Washington Post has used Whisper at least once to find story sources. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment.