The Guardian Corrects and Clarifies Story That Damaged Whisper App

Some redemption months after privacy allegations

The Guardian has issued a correction and clarification on a months-old damning report that stung the anonymous sharing app Whisper and its staff. It turns out that alleged privacy problems may not have been as egregious as first reported.

The Guardian wrote in October that Whisper, which allows people to anonymously share secrets, bent its own privacy rules, and users were not as protected as they might have thought while using the service. Now, The Guardian says some of its reporting was off.

One of the news site's criticisms of Whisper was that the app tracked user locations, even after people opted out of that feature. The Guardian now agrees with Whisper's explanation that the app only collected those users' IP addresses, which could show their cities, but not exact locations or any personally identifiable information.

To that end, Whisper was already working on revising privacy rules to reflect how it tracks IP addresses. Whisper also cautioned people who used exact location services not to reveal too much personal information in their posts if they wanted to protect their anonymity.

Whisper rewrote its policies after hearing The Guardian's plans to run the story, and the news site indicated the move may have been a response to its reporting. Now, The Guardian says Whisper's policy changes had been in the works for months before the company even knew The Guardian would publish a story.

"Since we published our stories about Whisper between 16 October and 25 October 2014, the company has provided further information," The Guardian wrote in its correction today. "We confirm that Whisper had drafted the changes to its terms of service and privacy policy before Whisper became aware that the Guardian was intending to write about it."

The Guardian only found out about some of Whisper's inner workings because it had been looking to partner with the app on stories. The app has been looking for media outlets to publish stories based on Whisper conversations, which often reveal the general sentiment around a given topic or trend.

In fact, after The Guardian story, BuzzFeed reportedly dropped out of a potential partnership with Whisper because of the privacy questions that were raised.

"We appreciate the Guardian issuing the corrections and setting the record straight," Whisper CEO Michael Heyward told The Wall Street Journal. "For us, this isn't about vindication. It is vital that our users and partners know that Whisper is and always has been totally committed to the privacy of everyone who uses our product."

The Guardian's reporting blindsided Whisper, but also brought up issues of media ethics and debates on whether the publication should have reported a story based on information gleaned in a private business meeting.

In the original reporting the publication quoted a Whisper employee who said the app would check a user's location to see if the person was a credible source on a given topic. For instance, one user became known for juicy gossip around Washington, D.C., and Whisper allegedly checked the person's location to ensure he was reliable. It found the person was often by the Capitol, meaning he was likely a Washington insider.

The Guardian reported that a Whisper executive told them: "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 story with that anecdote still stands on The Guardian's website, but a companion piece had been removed. The publication wrote: "The Guardian has clarified an article about Whisper's terms of service and removed an opinion piece entitled 'Think you can Whisper privately? Think again.'"