Exclusive: Guardian journalists used Whisper data for months before publishing stories on privacy concerns

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A mapping tool used by Whisper's editorial team to surface posts based on approximate geolocation. (Photo: The Guardian/Handout)

A mapping tool used by Whisper’s editorial team to surface posts based on approximate geolocation. (Photo: The Guardian/Handout)

Journalists at the Guardian newspaper used data collected from the anonymous storytelling app Whisper for at least six months before the publication moved an exposé alleging the service surreptitiously tracked users through broad means, according to sources.

On Thursday, the Guardian published a bombshell report alleging Whisper had been able to determine the approximate locations of many anonymous users who opted-out of sharing geolocation data. According to the report, Whisper used other means, including a user’s Internet Protocol (IP) address, to surreptitiously “track” interesting users who had otherwise chosen not to share their location data with the service. That data was later aggregated on several tools used by Whisper’s editorial team to surface interesting posts for potential news stories, the Guardian said.

The newspaper claimed it had learned about Whisper’s location tracking ability during a recent multi-day visit to the company’s Los Angeles office in which the Guardian was exploring an expanded editorial partnership with the anonymous publishing service. The story, as written, painted a picture of journalists who were shocked to learn that Whisper had built tools aimed at exposing the locations and identities of its users while at the same time promoting the application as a safe place to share intimate stories under the confidence of anonymity.

But sources told The Desk on Thursday that the Guardian had been using Whisper’s editorial services for at least six months before they published their exposé, and that top executives at the paper had been given a demonstration on Whisper’s data and location-sifting technology over the summer.

Speaking on background, sources from both Whisper and the Guardian confirmed to The Desk that around half a dozen Guardian journalists had been in contact with Whisper’s editorial team for nearly a year. A handful of meetings were held over the course of several months between editors at the Guardian and Whisper executives as the two companies sought to expand their news partnership, including two meetings in which editors and “top brass” at the Guardian were shown exactly how Whisper surfaces posts using “back end” tools that provides a broad approximation of a user’s location.

Those two meetings happened in June, according to a Whisper employee — one meeting took place at the Guardian’s New York City office, another at Whisper’s headquarters in Los Angeles.

Guardian journalists working closely with Whisper’s team used posts from the anonymous sharing app for at least three stories published this year: One story focused on undocumented workers in the United States, while another spotlighted Whisper posts written by U.S. military service members reacting to a sudden surge of Islamic State fighters in the Middle East. A third story explored posts made by Whisper users around Valentine’s Day.

The Desk confirmed the months-long partnership with Whisper news editor Slade Sohmer and a Guardian reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity. A Guardian spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The reporter acknowledged the newspaper had used Whisper posts in past stories, but said Guardian journalists did not have direct access to Whisper’s mapping tools. A Whisper employee who spoke on background confirmed Guardian editors did not have immediate access to the tools, but challenged claims that the Guardian did not know about Whisper’s mapping tools until just recently.

The employee also denied that Whisper’s editorial tools incorporate data from users who have chosen not to share their location. “The map exclusively plots opted-in users, and the Guardian knows that,” the Whisper employee said.

Editorial partnerships between news organizations and Whisper are not unheard of: Earlier this year, the content website BuzzFeed announced a partnership with the app for the website’s news portal. Shortly after the Guardian’s story moved on Thursday, BuzzFeed said they would temporarily suspend their editorial partnership with Whisper “until Whisper clarifies to us and its users the policy on user location and privacy.” Fusion, a youth-focused television news channel, also said it was suspending its partnership with Whisper.

On Thursday, Whisper employees sharply criticized the Guardian’s exposé as being “a pack of vicious lies” and “so inaccurate as to be laughable.” In a series of posts published to Twitter, Whisper news executive Neetzan Zimmerman denied that the application collected the “exact location data” of its users, something that the Guardian says it never alleged.

Whisper also laughed off an allegation that it re-wrote a significant portion of its terms of service after learning that the Guardian would publish a story about how the service tracked users. “The Guardian’s reporting that we changed our terms of service in response to the article is beyond silly,” Whisper executive Chad DePue wrote on the website Hacker News.

The Guardian acknowledged that Whisper claimed the timing of the update was “coincidental,” but said the re-written portions of the app’s terms of service were “significant changes, each of which can be clearly be traced back to the specific allegations it had received in writing from the Guardian.”