At Whisper, Data Collection Comes Under Siege

Can an app that people anonymously share confessions on, some of which become fodder for news stories, protect the users' identities? That's the issue surrounding Whisper this week.

When opening the anonymous message board app Whisper on an iOS device for the first time, users are twice prompted to allow the Los Angeles start-up to determine their pinpoint location so they can view posts shared by people nearby.

But the Guardian reported Thursday that Whisper collects IP addresses and therefore continues to generally track even the thin slice of users who don't 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 company's chief technology officer said.

The problem is Whisper does collect the unique code of a user's mobile device. That allows Whisper to build a portrait of who's 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.

Whisper 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 deliver on.

But the media backlash against Whisper highlights the unique set of privacy challenges it faces as a media operation -- a content creator -- 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.

"Whatever story you have in mind, you can...

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