Last week, newspaper The Guardian published a story saying that the people who run Whisper, an app for sharing thoughts anonymously, track the whereabouts of the apps users, whether those users have opt-in to location tracking or not.
Whisper immediately responded to the story with a 5 page statement. Now it’s responding again.
CEO Michael Heyward just published this on Medium, the blogging platform:
What Whisper Is All About
Brad and I founded Whisper to give people a safe place to be authentic. 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 we’re disappointed with the Guardian’s approach, we welcome the discussion. We realise that we’re not infallible, and that reasonable people can disagree about a new and quickly evolving area like online anonymity. So we’re grateful to those who have shared thoughtful feedback over the last few days.
Our company is built on the values of honesty and transparency. Rather than further debate the Guardian’s methods or allegations, I’d like to reiterate our approach to protecting your privacy:*
We do not collect any personally identifiable information from users (names, email addresses, phone numbers, etc.).
We collect IP addresses, which make it possible to infer your city, state and country. Nearly all apps and websites collect this information to provide their service. (IP addresses are deleted after 7 days.)
By default, we do not have your GPS location.
If you opt-in to sharing your GPS location on a Whisper, we randomize it to help preserve your anonymity. We randomize the GPS location within a 500 meter radius when it is stored in our database. When your Whisper is posted in the app, its location has been further randomised.
Whisper is not a place for illegal activity. If we receive a valid legal request, or we learn that you tried to use Whisper to post content that exposes imminent danger to yourself or others, we will share the limited information we have, including IP address, with the appropriate authorities.
A few more important points:
We allow users to share their GPS location because it enhances their experience by surfacing regional issues of interest, and makes them feel connected to those near them. We have been allowing users to search Whispers by location since December 2013. In May we enhanced this feature to allow users to search for Whispers on a map (this is the same mapping tool that Whisper uses internally).
We do not actively track users. We absolutely review users’ posts for trust and safety reasons whether they shared their GPS location or not. For example, if we believe a user may pose a threat to their community, we will take appropriate action. Because we don’t have any personally identifiable information, viewing their past activity (which they have shared publicly) helps us assess if any action should be taken. To cite another example, if a user claims to be a health care professional concerned about Ebola, we may review their recent posts to help assess the authenticity of the Whisper before featuring it.
We also utilise anonymous Whisper data to glean important insights about our world. For example, we’re proudly working with organisations to lower suicide rates, including the Department of Defence’s Suicide Prevention Office. To date we have also referred more than 40,000 people to the National Suicide Prevention hotline and we have a nonprofit arm dedicated to helping millions more. We can’t wait to establish more of these relationships and effect real change.
A key part of our mission is to shine a light on issues that too often are hidden in the shadows of society. To help reach more people, we partner with media organisations to raise awareness around these issues, such as young people wrestling with questions of their sexual identity, teen mums sharing their struggles, and West Africans disclosing their fears about Ebola. Hundreds of millions of people have read these stories and hopefully have felt, “I’m not the only one…” We look forward to continuing this important work with our partners.
Above all else, we always strive to do right by our users. We have zero tolerance for any employee who violates that trust.
Finally, we appreciate the importance of open and transparent communication. We will keep you updated on our progress as we incorporate feedback and continue to improve the Whisper experience. In the meantime we welcome scrutiny because it makes us better. I encourage you to share your thoughts with me directly at [email protected]
Co-founder and CEO, Whisper