Whisper: The anonymous app that isn't so anonymous after all

Whisper’s chummy relationship with the publishing world appears to be backfiring. The Guardian published a story Thursday revealing that the supposedly anonymous social network provides users’ location data to the U.S. Department of Defense, the FBI and Britain’s national security service MI5. The paper had used Whisper in the past for its reporting, but has since suspended its relationship.

In direct response to the story BuzzFeed and Fusion, a startup cable channel and digital media network, announced that they, too, would be dropping the platform as a partner. “We’re taking a break from our partnership until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson told Digiday in a statement.

Whisper is one of a host of so-called anonymity and private messaging apps such as Secret and Snapchat, respectively, that have gained popularity by offering an alternative to the inherently public sharing on Facebook. But as this instance and Snapchat’s several privacy breaches have shown, privacy is never certain on the Web.

What makes Thursday’s Guardian story unique is that it was the result of a working relationship between the paper and Whisper, which itself has expressed aspirations to become a viable news source. The Guardian has worked with the app since February. But the paper first became aware of Whisper’s questionable practices more recently when two reporters visited Whisper’s offices “to explore the possibility of an expanded journalistic relationship with Whisper,” according to the article.

The BuzzFeed-Whisper partnership entailed Whisper curating “whispers,” its term for anonymously posted messages, around a certain topic to then be used as a BuzzFeed story, such as this video about virgins attending college.

In June, Whisper coordinated an interview between one of its users, a man who claimed to be an Uber driver, and Valleywag, Gawker’s tech startup vertical. Valleywag writer Sam Biddle did not respond to an email asking about his interactions with Whisper.

These partnerships have largely been the work for Neetzan Zimmerman, the platform’s editor-in-chief and former Gawker wunderkind who was hired in January. Zimmerman took to Twitter to defend Whisper and its commitment to its users’ privacy.

While Zimmerman’s tweets stressed that Whisper does not collect “personally identifiable information (name, phone, email, address),” he did acknowledge that the platform tracks some users’ locations within a 500 meter radius, and did not refute claims that the platform works with government agencies from the U.S. and U.K.

Neither did Whisper’s response to The Guardian story (posted Thursday afternoon on Scribd and embedded below):

Responses for Guardian by Neetzan

Whisper said in the response that aspects of the Guardian story were untrue, but it did confirm that it has complied with law enforcement requests for data and that it maintains a close relationship with the Department of Defense and other military organizations in order “to lower suicide rates.”

For Whisper, the story and subsequent reaction is a public relations problem. Anonymity is central to the platform’s brand, and having a close relationship with the government, no matter how well-intentioned, subverts that.

The Guardian, meanwhile, has found itself reporting on a platform it has relied upon for story fodder; Whisper helped The Guardian with pieces on Valentine’s Day, illegal immigration and American troops fighting ISIS. The Guardian did not return a request for comment at time of press.

The entire ordeal is emblematic of the complex relationship between publisher and platforms in modern media. Publishers are becoming increasingly dependent on platforms for distribution and news-gathering, causing some publisher to forge close relationships with certain platforms (namely Facebook).

And yet those publishers also find themselves having to adversarially cover those same platforms.

“The Guardian is no longer pursuing a relationship with Whisper,” The Guardian said in its story.

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