Apps like Whisper and Secret claim to keep you anonymous when you post, but they raise new concerns. Are you really anonymous? Is it really impossible for someone to know that it’s you? What data is collected by the app, and could it ever be made public? With more and more users thinking about privacy, developers are releasing apps that “promise” anonymity. You can say what’s on your mind without anyone knowing exactly who you are. But how safe are they? You should find out before you start using them.
Android apps display all required permissions before installation. You have to accept them before the app installs and none can be disabled. iOS apps are a little different in that only the most important permissions are requested when the app first opens. The most common are access to your location, camera, and other accounts.
I’m always most concerned with the use of location data. People’s lives generally include a lot of of repetition. Whether it’s going to work, going to school, or going out with friends, an obvious pattern can be discerned from location data. If someone was able to hack one of these developers, they could find the collected data. This data could expose millions of users. Regardless of the content that was posted, finding out the patterns of users could have negative results.
The dismissed lawsuit against Apple for tracking users by keeping a cache of of data pulled from Wi-Fi and cell towers is one example of the use of this information. Google also uses location data across its apps. Google Now (built into Search) pulls data from other Google services to load information. Apple and Google have to be more transparent about location usage because people use these services on a lot of devices.
Most people enjoy the ability to get instant directions, and iOS and Android need permission to access your location to help you. Other third party apps also want to access that information, but a lot of times it’s not really necessary. It’s really about the data that can be pulled from the user.
Whisper and Secret use geolocation. Whisper requires both approximate and precise location. According to Whisper, it uses “location services as options for our users. Users are not required to use their location but if they are interested in connecting with other users in their area they can do so.”
It is possible to not show your location when posting a Whisper, but the option is at the bottom of all the possible locations. The app also lets you disable location services but this kind of option is pretty difficult to find for many users. On the plus side, Whisper doesn’t use location to import photos because “image searches are done by Bing.com. There are no image location related searches.”
Whisper’s response to the use of location is positive, but the dual location permissions are still a bit confusing.
Secret is more vague because it doesn’t explicitly state why it wants to know your location. But the fact that it needs a phone number to register means that they have your area code in its system. So even though Secret can use your location information when you post, it requires you to submit your telephone number. The question is: why?
Looking at Secret’s privacy page about location information:
“We may collect information about the location of your device each time you access or use one of our mobile applications or otherwise consent to the collection of this information. For more details, please see “Your Choices” below.”
Unfortunately, looking through the “Your Choices” section, there isn’t anything that directly mentions location data. There is a section about cookies, but the link to “delete or disable flash cookies” takes you to the Adobe Flash Player documentation page.
Unlike Whisper, Secret doesn’t give you any options to disable location in the app and its instructions to disable cookies are complicated enough that they’ll be useless for most people. Since Secret is a new company, it needs to gather as much information as possible about its users. And while many apps collect information for usage and bug fixes, the primary function of Secret is being anonymous. That’s not really true if the company is collecting this information.
Nothing will be anonymous
The ability to communicate anonymously has a cost. While on the surface, you may think everything you do in these apps is private, these apps collect your data and can gain access to other accounts stored on a device.
The promise of anonymity is compelling, but like all interactions there is always a definite give-and-take between what you share and what is taken from you. It’s ultimately your choice if you use these apps, but you should be aware that everything you do online leaves some sort of trail.