Whisper CEO suspends editorial staff, but maintains that the Guardian report is inaccurate

After a Guardian story earlier this month revealed what appeared to be some questionable practices by Whisper, the anonymous social network, there was little response from the company’s CEO, Michael Heyward, apart from a post in which he said the company took the privacy of its users seriously. But now the Whisper co-founder has moved to try and dampen some of the ongoing criticism of the network by suspending members of the company’s editorial team while it does an internal investigation of the facts reported by the Guardian, and also by responding point by point to what he says are misrepresentations by the newspaper about the company’s methods.

Among the most controversial aspects of the Guardian‘s report (please see disclosure below) was the allegation that the editorial team — managed by editor-in-chief and former Gawker writer Neetzan Zimmerman — tracked certain “newsworthy” users even if they opted out of location features, by using their IP addresses. The paper also mentioned that it was told by a Whisper executive about one specific user, a sex-obsessed lobbyist in Washington DC, and that it would be “tracking him for the rest of his life and he will never know.”

In a number of interviews, including a long one with me, Zimmerman said that the quote the Guardian provided could not have happened because no such person existed in the company’s database. As he described it to me:

A person like that does not exist. I know for a fact that a person like that does not exist, because I run the editorial operation and if there were a person like that or a project like that, I would know about it.

Zimmerman also responded aggressively to the Guardian report on Twitter and elsewhere, calling it a “pack of vicious lies” and adding that the newspaper “made a mistake posting that story and they will regret it.” In his detailed response to the Guardian piece, which was published as a PDF using Amazon’s S3 service, Heyward said that Zimmerman’s responses had “taken away from the substance of the issue,” and that the company had “placed members of the editorial team involved with the Guardian’s visit on leave, pending the results of our internal review.”

Guardian Whisper map

Despite his move to suspend the editorial team, however — and a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by the quote about the sex-obsessed lobbyist — the Whisper CEO continued to argue that the Guardian‘s report was mistaken about a number of factors, because it “made technology-related inferences based on discussions with non-technical people.” Among the mistakes and misinterpretations, he said, were the following:

— The editorial team did not track users who had opted out of sharing their location with the app: “The Whispers referred to here contain location information the users had publicly shared, because the user either opted in to sharing their location, mentioned their location in the Whisper, or tagged their location.”

— The editorial team does not use IP location to track users: “This is confusing the practices of the safety team with the editorial team. If we receive a valid legal request, or we learn through a Whisper post of an imminent and serious threat to people’s safety, the safety team will forward the IP address (if we have it) to the appropriate legal authority.”

— Whisper does not track its users’ location: “We do not track users passively or actively. We have a history of a user’s Whispers, which are public. If they shared their location, it is randomized to within 500m and publicly displayed on their posts. We promote and feature Whispers, and our editorial team looks at past Whispers from a user to determine their authenticity.”

— The company stores location data, but doesn’t know who its users are: “It’s a feature of the product for users to be able to search for old Whispers shared at a location. Again, we do not know who these users are because we don’t collect any personally identifiable information.”

As a number of outlets have reported, Whisper has been asked to appear before a Senate committee run by Senator Jay Rockefeller, who has expressed concern about the allegations contained in the Guardian piece. Among other things, he said that the company told users they would not be tracked, but then acknowledged that “the company does collect data that can be used to approximate a user’s location” and that this was a serious issue for the commerce committee.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of the Guardian