Whisper, Anonymity & The Real Cost of Privacy Online

The last week or so has been a turbulent one for the developers of the supposed “anonymous” communication platform Whisper, who have been faced with a flurry of controversy since their mobile app was blasted by The Guardian for a number of privacy violations.

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Michael Heyward, Whisper CEO. Photo: TechCrunch

The newspaper’s claims ranged from tracking its users’ location details to disclosing their personal info to law enforcement agencies who were on the hunt for people they’d deemed to be ‘threats to national security’ both domestic and abroad.

Whisper, an app that touts millions of users, had previously claimed they never logged the location data of its population, only to backtrack on that idea once several internal interviews with their vice president and editor-in-chief came to light that revealed a different reality entirely.

Initially, the editor-in-chief of Whisper (of former Gawker fame) Neetzan Zimmerman called the Guardian’s claims “100% false”, even going as far to challenge the well-respected media outlet on their claims in an all out tweet-off that could only end badly for a company, which had shared many of its internal practices with journalists from the same outfit mere weeks prior.

What had started as an opt-in program that users could select to broadcast their whereabouts for every message sent to the world quickly became a tracking effort on behalf of the company themselves.

Whisper reportedly “logged and triangulated the IP address” of every phone that was signed on, whether the owners of those devices had given them permission beforehand or not.

It was this controversial tactic that goaded The Guardian into posting their discoveries in a lengthy, detail-heavy piece last Thursday, and started the back-and-forth online battle that has just started to cool down as of the posting of this article.

The CEO of the company, Michael Heyward, has since sat down with his original accusers at the publication, attempting to dispel any rumors on behalf of the publication, and clear up any misconceptions the public may have about his app or the rules that govern its existence.

“Above all else, we always strive to do right by our users,” he said. “We have zero tolerance for any employee who violates that trust.”

“While we’re disappointed with the Guardian’s approach, we welcome the discussion,” Heyward said. “We realise that we’re not infallible, and that reasonable people can disagree about a new and quickly evolving area like online anonymity.”

In a blog posted on the publication platform Medium, Heyward broke down the tenets of Whisper’s code of ethics in details, being sure not to miss any points that might be misconstrued by the time the media at large started to dissect its meaning:

“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 randomized.
  • 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.

Photo: The Guardian

Photo: The Guardian

Obviously, if you create a program that is supposedly meant to “give anonymous journalists and activists a voice”, and then turnaround and give an identity to everyone who thought they were deftly avoiding that altogether, you’re bound to catch a little flak from the people who depended on you to keep their movements and messages a secret.

At the end of the day, one might argue that the whole reason Whisper went this route is that there are forces far more powerful and paid for than a private company could ever dream of.

If you want to see where the future of these types of scandals are headed, you needn’t look much further than the newest, hottest, and most concerning social network on the block, Ello.

Ello broke onto the scene earlier this year with grandiose ideas of true anonymity on a social network, and promises that none of their customer’s data would ever be packaged and resold to marketers for the purpose of advertising or otherwise.

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Of course, these claims echo many of the same diatribes we’ve heard from a hundred other websites exactly like theirs since the Snowden revelations first hit.

Ello certainly has the power of the press on their side in their big push to pull people away from Facebook. In the end one has to wonder how a concept like this can remain the slightest bit profitable without dipping into the voracious vat of big data they’ll have waiting at their fingertips by the time their member count crosses the first million.

Realistically on some level, it’s understandable why people might be dismayed by these recent revelations and cautious of any program in the future that purports to be a completely anonymous platform.

That said, in this new era of the Internet (read: post-Snowden), one should never assume that anything they type on a computer, connected or not, isn’t being analyzed and archived by a machine run amok with over-funded and under-regulated power designed for the sole purpose of catching you in the act.

As the NSA documents leaked out over the past year have clearly shown us, no matter how protected you think you are, how encrypted you believe your communications to be, there is always someone on the other end of the line with the tools necessary to find out who you are and where you tweeted from if they want to.

Everything we do, every page we visit, and every “anonymous” message we push out to the world is being watched, and while Whisper, Ello, and other services like it are doing their best to try and create a world free from Big Brother, Big Brother is being paid hefty bucks to stay two steps ahead of that curve and curtail it at every twist and turn it tries to make.

VPN Creative will monitor any updates on the Whisper scandal and the potential of Ello’s new social network. Also remember to always connect to these programs and the Internet in general through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you plan to keep your true identity safe from the powers that be.