News & Views

The Secret is Out: But do we care?

by Kate Hollowood


These secrets are (mostly) not my own, but were taken from anonymous secret sharing app Whisper. A digital version of a Priest’s confession booth, the app taps into our desire to offload our sins and get secrets off our chests.

However, last week it was revealed that Whisper is not so anonymous after all, when Guardian reporters exposed how the company tracks its users. By following IP addresses, Whisper has been recording the rough location of users who opted out of geo-location services. The newspaper also discovered that Whisper has been sharing this information with the US Department of Defence, FBI and British security service MI5. Upon learning about The Guardian’s plans to publish the article, Whisper swiftly updated its terms and conditions with a new privacy policy, four days before the article was published.

Cue a public backlash? Apparently not. The story has been talked about widely, but most coverage just details the scandal. So far, the response on Twitter is mostly made up of debates about whether or not The Guardian acted ethically. It’s hard to find reactions from actual users of Whisper. Perhaps people are silently leaving the app in droves, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that they used it in the first place? My research suggests this is not the case, as I logged into the platform itself to see what users were saying.


Does this signal a shift in consumer attitude? Do people now believe that the privacy of their data doesn’t matter? There will clearly be people for whom anonymity is more important, such as the targeted ‘sex obsessed lobbyist’ that The Guardian spoke about in its report. But it’s likely that for the majority of Whisper’s fans, the news of its user-tracking is not such a big deal. Typical posts such as a user’s relationship worries, bad jokes and misdeeds at work are hardly newsworthy topics or of relevance to the FBI. So what if Whisper knows their rough location?

I also think people are aware of the fact that once they have put their secret out they are taking a risk on some level. Despite what the platform’s name implies, people remain conscious of the fact that they are publicly uploading a secret to the internet. Telling a secret to anyone involves renouncing a degree of control, and this act of letting go is at least partly what makes it so cathartic. What’s more, people’s whispers about suicide or coming-out confessions make you wonder if it’s a platform for secrets people want to be in the open, but can’t tell. Perhaps on a sub-conscious level these users want to be discovered.

Whisper could have avoided last week’s drama if it had been upfront about the extent to which the app offers ‘anonymity’. The lack of reaction to events so far suggests that people would use the app anyway. By claiming itself to be ‘the safest place on the internet’ Whisper opened itself up to criticism. Ironically, the platform’s reputation is suffering because it tried to keep a secret. To hark back to our own research on brands and privacy, it is absolutely crucial that brands are honest and transparent. As the old saying goes, Murder will out.