Commerce Committee wants answers on Whisper app

The Senate Commerce Committee wants to know more about a social media app that promises anonymity that might have violated its terms of service agreement with customers. 

Committee Chairman Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerLobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner Overnight Tech: Senate panel to vote on Dem FCC commissioner MORE (D-W.Va.) on Thursday requested a staff briefing from the chief executive of the company behind the app Whisper, which allows users to share short messages anonymously online.

"I take this matter seriously," he said in the letter to the company's CEO, Michael Heyward. 

The call for more information comes after a Guardian article that reported the company can track its users in a general area, even when the app’s location tool is turned off. The report also revealed that the company partners with media organizations to highlight some of the more newsworthy posts shared through the app.  

"It is questionable, at best, whether users seeking to post anonymously on the 'safest place on the Internet' would expect that WhisperText has information sharing relationships with third parties such as media organizations," Rockefeller said in a statement. 

The West Virginia Democrat also took issue with the company having a location in the Philippines that is used to screen messages. The senator said that could also violate the terms of service. The chairman, however, did not mention another portion of the article describing a partnership with the Department of Defense in which the company shares how frequently suicide is mentioned among individuals on U.S. military bases.  

Rockefeller also asked for copies of Whisper’s terms of service agreement at different times in the company’s history to see if changes were made. 

"While Whisper may provide its users a unique social experience, the allegations in recent media accounts are serious, and users are entitled to privacy policies that are transparent, disclosed, and followed by the company," he said. 

The company allegedly updated its terms of service after The Guardian inquired about the practice. 

Rockefeller has touted himself as an advocate for opt-out policies from certain online tracking that would collect potentially profitable information. 

The company has defended itself by saying it does not track users. But it admitted it does sometimes review a user's past activity, when the user posts something newsworthy. 

Whisper has noted that users must opt in to the location tool and that it does not collect or store "personally identifiable information,” such as names, phone numbers or email addresses. It did point out that users' IP addresses can give a general location of their whereabouts, even without the location tool turned on. 

"We share the Senator's interest in protecting consumer privacy and will respond shortly," Heyward, the CEO, said in a statement. "Though we disagree with the Guardian’s reporting, we welcome the discussion."

— Updated 11:30 a.m.