Senator Asks Anonymous Social App to Detail Commitment to User Privacy

By Michael O. Loatman

Oct. 28 — The chairman of a Senate committee with jurisdiction over online privacy asked in an Oct. 22 letter whether Whisper, an anonymous social messaging application, is abiding by its privacy promises to users.

According to WhisperText LLC's website, the Whisper app is a “a safe place” for users to “anonymously share their innermost thoughts, secrets, and feelings.” The company said users are assigned “a non-unique display name” and “multiple users may be assigned the same display name.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) asked WhisperText Chief Executive Officer Michael Heyward to respond to reports in The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, that his company was able to track “the approximate location of some users even where the user requested not to be tracked—and despite provisions in its privacy policy” that said providing WhisperText permission to track a user's location was “purely voluntary.”

Rockefeller said WhisperText was reportedly reviewing user data in the Philippines, despite promising users that data processing and storage would be in the U.S. The senator added that Whisper allegedly had business relationships with media companies in which it provided access to the app's content.

“It is questionable, at best, whether users seeking to post anonymously on the ‘safest place on the internet' would expect that WhisperText has information sharing relationships with third parties such as media organizations,” Rockefeller said.

‘Setting the Record Straight.'

Responding to the letter, Heyward told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 28, “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.”

Heyward also provided a detailed response to an Oct. 23 article in The Guardian, titled Setting the Record Straight, saying the publication “continues to misrepresent how we operated.”

He wrote that claims in The Guardian that WhisperText employees were able to find the approximate location of users who had chosen to hide their location were “false.” Heyward added, “The Whispers referred to here contain location information the users had publicly shared, because the user either opted in to sharing their location, mentioned their location in the Whisper, or tagged their location,”

His response added that WhisperText doesn't have “an overseas base in the Philippines.” He said the company contracts with “TalkUs, a content moderation firm in the Philippines used by some of the largest technology companies in the world.” Heyward added that the app's terms of service “give us the ability to store information in other countries, but we do not. All data is stored in the United States, and has always been.”

Rockefeller asked WhisperText to offer a committee staff briefing that would discuss whether it was tracking the location of users who opted out of geolocation services; where user data are processed and stored; how the company shares user data with third parties; and how it informs users about its privacy and data security policies along with any updates to those policies.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael O. Loatman in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katie W. Johnson at