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“Anonymous” Social Media App Whisper Tracks Its Users

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Whisper is a social media app that claims to be “the first completely anonymous social media network”. The app encourages sharing of thoughts and secrets through short messages (with or without images) and guarantees 100% anonymity to its users. Due to the level of privacy that it promises, Whisper has become immensely popular in United States and is also being used by government officials and military personnel to post sensitive information that cannot be shared through other channels. However, if a recent report published by Guardian is any indication, the app not only tracks its users all the time but also ignores the requests of those who do not wish to share their information.

While Whisper has managed to lure hundreds of thousands of users with the promise of anonymity, it has now emerged that the company has created a mapping tool that can pinpoint a user’s location accurately to within 500 meters. The company also has resources in place to detect approximate location (through IP addresses) of the users who have disabled the geolocation option available within the app. What’s worse, the messages deleted by the users (along with their location and time) are in fact stored in a searchable database for an indefinite period of time.

As per the report, Whisper has a poor track record of protecting user information from the law enforcement agencies. The company has shared information with FBI and MI5 in the past and is also known to co-operate with the US Department of Defense (DoD). When confronted with the question, the company claimed that it does not share user details with anyone but accepted that it is working with several organizations (including DoD) to prevent suicides.

In a stunning revelation that is bound to shock the users of Whisper, Guardian has disclosed that the company has a dedicated team in place to monitor messages and movements of users that are deemed newsworthy (for instance, employees of big corporations like Disney and Yahoo; military personnel etc.). The team is headed by the company’s editor-in-chief and is responsible for tracking activity history along with the movements (through the mapping tool) of specific users.

Guardian has also learned that Whisper has hired a big team in Philippines to prevent the misuse of the service. The overseas staff gets unhindered access to the user data so there is a big risk that the personal details of Americans could be compromised by overseas employees. The company is also planning to launch a Chinese version of its app and has agreed to the censorship demands of the Chinese authorities.

Once Guardian published its story, Whisper updated its privacy policy to address the issues raised by the paper. The updated policy now clearly states that user location can be determined even if the users disable the geolocation feature and user data may be shared with research institutions and universities.

The report published by the Guardian once again demonstrates that privacy is indeed a rare commodity in the age of internet. The episode also teaches us not to believe the tall promises of new and upcoming companies and think twice before posting sensitive data on the web.

January 18, 2015

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