We are all concerned, or at least we are told we ought to be, with the preservation of our online privacy and confidential information to be contrasted with a pervasive social need to confess intimate or embarrassing details about ourselves.
The internet as confessional is perhaps a wholly new spiritual approach to how we treat online communities and raises important legal issues for website users and hosts. In fact, online anonymity may be a commodity that sites have begun offering as a means of capitalising on the desire to reveal all.
Secret websites, it is claimed, allow individuals to interact with total anonymity, safe in the knowledge that their online audacity is matched by equal amounts of online privacy. One such website is Whisper (www.whisper.sh), an online confessional where users can post revelations which they wouldn’t post on a personal digital platform.
For example, under Whisper’s faith category one user writes, “I prostitute myself to help pay my rent. Nobody would ever know cause [sic] people think I’m the perfect Christian boy”.
Other (also anonymous) users are then able to reply to or like these posts. Since the mobile app functions with a location tracker, users can be notified of confessions that are posted by other Whisper users nearby. Presumably this is intended to make each user feel that they are part of a community both online and in real space.
The site’s App Store listing runs “With Whisper, you’re free to anonymously share your thoughts with the world”. The site is regarded as a cross between Twitter (no explanation required) and Snapchat (which allows mobile users to send messages which are then deleted shortly afterwards, thereby preserving our newly created “right” to be forgotten).
While the list of searchable categories is fairly mundane, covering “WTF” and “LGBTQ” to “Military” and “DIY and Home” what is astounding is the site’s popularity. In two years it has secured over USD $24 million in funding and according to its 26 year old founder Michael Heyward 45% of users post something at least once every day.
Whisper has made no secret of its intent to allow advertising on its site in order to monetise a currently free service, and has also taken on one of the web’s most prolific bloggers and marketers, Neetzan Zimmerman, to expand the site’s reach and user base. The site may wish to position itself as a form of citizen’s news service, where those posting could bear (anonymous) witness to events unfolding before their eyes.
The idea that you could find untrue information being propagated by anonymous users is denied by Whisper who point out that they employ 50 workers in the Philippines whose role is to monitor the posts for accuracy, while algorithms analyse the posts for example where evidence of cyberbullying based on the location of the IP addresses can be observed.
However, it is alleged by some that in fact Whisper is merely giving the impression of anonymity to its users. The tracking of user locations, the use of device IDs which can identify the device used to register the app and the sharing of data with the private messaging app TigerText means that user information is not only being gathered, but shared with third parties and ultimately may be used to target the confessor with adverts (based on their own revelations).
The veneer of anonymity can be used to harvest one of the most valuable commodities of the digital age – our personal data. The adage that “if a commodity is free, then YOU are the commodity”, has never been more relevant.
Rhory Robertson and is a partner and James Hooper a trainee who work in the Collyer Bristow Cyber Investigations Unit.