Whisper Exposed: Glut of Lies and Abuse by Consumer App Companies Continues

by Shanley Kane on October 21st, 2014

Fast-following news of Snapchat hacks: revelations that social networking app “Whisper” has deliberately lied about anonymity, privacy, tracking and data storage on its platform while explicitly monitoring users, retaining “deleted” data indefinitely, sharing user information with the government and specifically tracking high profile and potentially “newsworthy” users.

Whisper is an “anonymous social network” that has billed itself as “untraceable, invisible, no restrictions” and raised $60 million in venture capital.

Via The Guardian:

“The practice of monitoring the whereabouts of Whisper users – including those who have expressly opted out of geolocation services – will alarm users, who are encouraged to disclose intimate details about their private and professional lives. Whisper is also sharing information with the US Department of Defense gleaned from smartphones it knows are used from military bases…”

The story shares many commonalities with Snapchat. Both Whisper and Snapchat have raised a significant amount of VC funding despite the fact that their claims about privacy, security and user consent/control are easily debunked by tech specialists. And both have specifically targeted young audiences, particularly young women and girls. According to this report from January, “Seven out of ten Whisper users are female, and nine in ten are between ages 18 and 24…”, while Snapchat’s user base is significantly comprised of underage youth.

What is perhaps most alarming is the utterly cavalier attitude with which Whisper has violated its fundamental contracts with users. Whisper employees and executives carelessly revealed its abusive behavior over multi-day conversation with members of one of the biggest news organizations in the world that is specifically known for breaking stories about citizen surveillance. The hubris, arrogance and profound, ingrained disregard for users is explicit in the actions of a company that not only systematically lies to users but makes no effort whatsoever to conceal it, even to the press.

We predict that this is just the beginning of revelations about consumer apps that prey on and lie to marginalized users, using patently false claims about their platform to attract young women and girls and vulnerable populations while making no attempt to protect them. The truth about Snapchat and Whisper continue to pose ethical dilemmas to the tech community, the latest of which are:

  • Why aren’t venture capitalist firms, which spend a significant amount of time and money on due diligence before making multi-million dollar investments, investigating the security, privacy and anonymity claims of their portfolio companies? Are we really to assume that technical due diligence is not being completed? Or is it more likely that venture capital firms are perfectly aware that their portfolio companies are lying to users and do not give a fuck?
  • While the Whisper and Snapchat revelations are being extensively covered in the technology press, is this information actually reaching the most vulnerable populations of affected users, many of whom do not have the technical knowledge to independently audit the risk profiles of consumer apps, and are certainly not reading TechCrunch?
  • Considering the ongoing debate about ethics and academia – specifically the surveillance of underage students and non-consensual data collection by academic and research entities – what are the implications of Whisper’s statements that it is “proudly working with many organisations to lower suicide rates and the US military is among them”? Whisper’s users have not been explicitly informed about, nor have consented to, their data being used in this manner. What other organizations are implicated in this profound breach of research ethics?

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