ANGELES ó Can an app that people anonymously share
confessions on, some of which become fodder for news
stories, protect the usersí identities?
the issue surrounding Whisper this week.
opening the anonymous message board app Whisper on an
iOS device for the first time, users are twice prompted
to allow the Los Angeles startup to determine their
pinpoint location so they can view posts shared by
the Guardian reported Thursday that Whisper collects IP
addresses and therefore continues to generally track
even the thin slice of users who donít consent to
sharing location data. Monitoring IP addresses is common
for online services. Whisper uses the data to defend
against spam, deduce time zones for deciding when to
send push alerts and personalize content, the companyís
chief technology officer said.
problem is Whisper does collect the unique code of a
userís mobile device. That allows Whisper to build a
portrait of whoís using the app on that phone or
tablet by tracking their interactions with the app.
Those portraits could offer enough clues to come up with
a real name based off public records.
was launched two years ago as a platform for people to
express themselves without having to worry about
tailoring messages to cultivate followers and likes or
exude coolness. With $60 million in venture capital
funding and about 70 employees, Whisper has a lot to
the media backlash against Whisper highlights the unique
set of privacy challenges it faces as a media operation
ó a content creator ó as opposed to simply a social
network like Facebook or Twitter. Rather than being a
platform where user data are tracked to deliver creepy,
targeted advertising, Whisper for now has sought to mine
user data to create revealing, sexy content.
story you have in mind, you can improve on it by
reaching out to people on Whisper" was the message
of Neetzan Zimmerman, Whisperís editor-in-chief, to
the media during an interview at the end of August.
on a patio at Whisperís mansion-turned-office off
Venice Beach, Zimmerman said he had just moved to Los
Angeles to be closer to a team of employees who search
for trends and news by monitoring the 30 new Whisper
posts each second around the clock. Location data are
key to vetting users and identifying trends.
editorial team collects posts around a topic theyíve
noticed or decided to dig into, like "14 Things
Your Roommate Is Really Doing After You Leave."
Theyíve also uncovered more serious items such as
soldiers moonlighting as escorts or a student being
dismissed from a parochial school because she was
ó mostly college-age women ó are willing to share
these "secrets" on a public forum because they
know fellow users canít identify them, Whisper says.
The company used to charge users $5.99 a month to
initiate private conversations with others on the app,
but now it doesnít collect details like names or email
addresses. Half of users share, and 95 percent of posts
receive engagement from others.
pitches hundreds of story ideas each week to more than
75 media organizations, including BroBible, Total Frat
Move, Mashable and Buzzfeed.
summer, Whisper decided to start posting ideas onto its
website that media didnít use.
donít want to take content that we think is ready for
prime time and throw it away," Zimmerman said,
calling the website a "safety net for runoff
also can make requests for posts on a certain topic, and
Zimmerman said turn-around time could be as quick as 30
minutes. The Guardian used Whisper to identify illegal
immigrants once, Zimmerman said.
team vets posts by noting whether the userís location
correlates with the claim made in the post, looking at
the userís previous posts and private-messaging the
user to see if they would like to speak to the media.
The same tactics could be used by law enforcement to
identify users, and Whisper hands over data to
authorities about two or three times per week, Chief
Executive Michael Heyward said.
could do all of this on their own without Whisperís
help, which is part of why Heyward said thereís no
"ulterior motive" around making money off the
curated content. The benefit is stories lead to more
people trying out Whisper, and "seeing or thinking
about an idea differently," Heyward said while
sitting on one of the purple couches at Whisperís
for generating revenue, Whisper has been running
experiments. Each post on Whisper is backed by an image
that fits the topic. Licensing those images is one of
the companyís biggest expenses. (The largest expense
is 130 content moderators in Manila contracted through
TaskUs who flag lewd or abusive content.) But Whisper
has toyed with the idea of suggesting images from
advertisers when users are about to post on a certain
topic. Developing a tool where companies could pay to
see what people are saying about their product is
another tool thatís been considered, Heyward said.
data collection is far from egregious, said Ben Zhao, a
computer science professor at the University of
California, Santa Barbara who began studying Whisper at
the beginning of the year and met with the company as
recently as Tuesday.
they do is nothing compared to what we deal with in
daily life in privacy challenges," Zhao said by
phone Thursday night. "The perspective they take on
how to protect users is more than Iíve seen from other
companies Iíve worked with, and thatís including
LinkedIn, Google, Zynga and Yelp."
study examined how anonymity meant users formed weak
relationships on Whisper, which meant they had less
incentive to stick with the service compared with a
friends-based online network. He said Whisperís
story-creating operation counteracts the issue by giving
people a reason to feel part of a larger group or trend.
reached out to Whisper in the late spring after his
research team uncovered a security flaw that allowed the
exact location of a Whisper poster to be identified
despite the random error the company normally inserts to
location information. Whisper fixed the issue. And as
Zhao now seeks to collaborate directly with Whisper,
executives have been insistent on not revealing any
information that puts users at-risk of being identified,
strike me as people who care about user privacy,"
Zhao said. "What they say and how they act has been
Mele, who consults businesses on dealing with social and
technology changes, said that Whisperís data
collection practices are not a surprise in todayís
we havenít come to grips with is outside that world,
what are the acceptable norms and limits?" he said.
"Those are the questions for our culture."