Whisper. Explain this 'questionable' behavior – senior US senator

Jay Rockefeller demands briefing with not-so-anonymous app maker

US Senator Jay Rockefeller has sent a terse letter [PDF] to the CEO of "anonymous" messaging app Whisper about its privacy policies.

Referring to "questionable" behavior revealed last week, the letter requests a briefing from the company on four issues, each revolving around the fact that Whisper tracks users of its app even when they actively turn off location finding, and provides details of "newsworthy" messages to journalists.

Whisper allows users to anonymously post their thoughts superimposed on an image automatically selected based on the text, and promises to be the "safest place on the internet."

However, when visiting Whisper's offices to discuss a possible partnership, Guardian hacks found the startup was using device-specific IDs as well as IP addresses to track people it was interested in.

According to the newspaper, one Whisper executive told them about a sex-obsessed lobbyist that were tailing. “He’s a guy that we’ll track for the rest of his life and he’ll have no idea we’ll be watching him,” the exec was quoted as saying.

In the days following, Whisper's editor-in-chief Neetzan Zimmermann and its CTO Chad DePue aggressively denied the allegations – but failed to provide any evidence they weren't true.

When The Register turned up at Whisper's offices in Los Angeles to ask about the allegations, the company refused to respond or open the door.

Since then, both Zimmerman and DePue have stopped posting on social networks or saying anything in public. CEO Michael Heyward has posted a blog in which he noted that the company was "not infallible" and claimed "reasonable people can disagree about a new and quickly evolving area like online anonymity."

Heyward also appeared to suggest that the worst behavior was down to a rogue employee. "Above all else, we always strive to do right by our users. We have zero tolerance for any employee who violates that trust," he wrote.

Rockefeller references Heyward's post in his letter but notes: "You also defend your company's relationships with media organizations and note plans to continue with such partnerships."

The letter concludes: "While Whisper may provide its users a unique social experience, the allegations in recent media accounts are serious, and users are entitled to privacy policies that are transparent, disclosed, and followed by the company."

In response, Heyward put out a careful statement saying: “We share the senator’s interest in protecting consumer privacy and will respond shortly. Though we disagree with The Guardian’s reporting, we welcome the discussion and opportunity to correct the record.”

While it is just a letter requesting information, it could be the start of a serious investigation if Whisper's response is found to be lacking. Rockefeller is a senior lawmaker and heads the powerful Commerce Committee and, the letter notes, oversees consumer protection issues including online privacy. ®

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