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Senator wants Whisper to clarify privacy policy after reports of user tracking

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Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller is calling for Whisper's CEO to clearly outline his company's privacy policy after The Guardian accused the anonymity-focused social app of quietly monitoring its users in an exposé last week. "I take this matter seriously," wrote Rockefeller in a letter sent to CEO Michael Heyward Wednesday. In a statement provided to The Verge, Whisper said "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."

The original report claimed that Whisper tracks the location of its users — even those who've opted out of geolocation services entirely — through a system that can pinpoint messages "to within 500 meters of where they were sent." For users with geolocation disabled, Whisper uses IP address tracking to get a rough idea of their location, The Guardian said. Other claims blasted the company's executives for secretly tracking users they believe to be "newsworthy" and sharing content with media companies without a user's permission. Whisper quickly fired back and denied nearly all of The Guardian's claims. Both sides have remained in a back-and-forth since the original story was published.

An exposé has landed Whisper in hot water

But Rockefeller wants Heyward to clear things up for good with a staff briefing, and he's presented the CEO with a number of questions regarding Whisper's privacy practices. First, he's requested a definitive answer on whether Whisper now or in the past has tracked users with geolocation services turned off. (The company says it doesn't, noting that the nature of IP addresses allows some rough approximation of location to be made.) Rockefeller also wants to know how long Whisper holds onto user data — and where that information is kept. Another question asks Heyward to firm up the policy on sharing Whisper content with third parties. The chairman has also requested three different copies of Whisper's privacy policy: the current terms,  the original launch policy, and another for when geolocation services were added to the app.

"While Whisper may provide its users a unique social experience, the allegations in recent media reports are serious, and users are entitled to privacy policies that are transparent, disclosed, and followed by the company," Rockefeller wrote in his letter. Unlike Facebook, Whisper (and other apps like Secret) allow people to share intimate or sensitive thoughts anonymously, and that freedom has seen them grow in popularity of late.