We read the Whisper and Secret fine print so you don’t have to

Because we all need to know what we're getting ourselves into. 


Kate Knibbs


Published Feb 19, 2014   Updated May 31, 2021, 5:56 pm CDT

The impulse to share secrets with strangers predates smartphones. We’ve been scrawling our hidden hearts onto bathroom walls for so long there’s even a fancy word for it: latrinalia.

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Today’s public secret-telling takes place on social networks instead of bathroom stalls, but it’s essentially the same content: a mix of earnest soul-sharing, quips, disses, and lies. Apps like Whisper and Secret have exploded in popularity in recent months. They’re the bathroom stall for a younger generation.

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There’s one big problem: Taking a Sharpie to the rickety third stall of your favorite bar to make fun of your boss will certainly let a stranger in on your frustration while protecting your anonymity. Expressing the same sentiment on Whisper, where posts are public, or on Secret, where they’re viewed by people within your social circle, it may feel just as private. But it’s not. Our digital fingerprints don’t smudge into oblivion as quickly as toilet graffiti.

The stakes are very high when it comes to security on Whisper and Secret. The core appeal is anonymity and an audience eager to hear our most salacious stories; if anonymity is lost, secrets will be exposed, and lives could possibly be ruined.

Which is why understanding what you’re getting into is important, and why these are the pieces of Whisper’s and Secret’s privacy policies you need to be most aware of.

“[People who submit give Whisper] a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform [their content.”

You may feel as though your post is safe and confined to the app, but once you put something up on Whisper, the app can do what it wants with it. That whole “non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform” means Whisper could turn your post into a massive ad in Times Square if it wants. (And maybe the one person you didn’t want to see it will see it and know you wrote it.)

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Using Whisper gives it permission to reprint and redistribute anywhere. In reality, the audience is the opposite of limited. The app reserves the right to sell your information to a third party. And Whisper is intent on growing, so it’s going to sell your information to a third party.

“Regardless of efforts, no data transmission over the Internet or other network, including any of WhisperText’s services can be guaranteed to be 100 percent secure. Accordingly, we cannot and do not guarantee the security of any information you transmit on or through the Site or Services and any information you transmit is sent at your own risk.”

Translation: Whisperers beware.

“You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your User Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such User Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms.”

This means other users can put screenshots of your posts on their blogs, or news sources (ahem, us) can use them in stories. They can re-pin them on Pinterest. This might not bother some people, and it’s pretty obvious that users can re-post each other’s content on the app, so this isn’t necessarily problematic. But it is another reminder that your whispers can, and do, get re-published everywhere. And that because of it, maybe don’t Whisper something scandalous that includes a selfie. Because you could see it go viral.

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“You understand and agree, however, that WhisperText may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of your User Content that have been removed or deleted.”

Whispers never die, son.

“Although we strive to delete your Message Data as soon as the message is transmitted, we cannot guarantee that the Message Data will be completely deleted. Accordingly, we cannot and do not guarantee that the Message Data will be deleted and therefore any Message Data that you send is sent at your own risk. ”

If messages never die or get deleted, don’t go blaming Whisper, because it just told you so.

On to Secret!

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“The data we automatically collect when you use the Service is solely used by us for debugging and analytical purposes. We do not collect your information in order to sell it to advertisers.”

Secret’s privacy policy is stronger than Whisper’s—much easier to read, for one, and it outlines how it intends to protect user privacy. Unlike Whisper, Secret says it will not sell user information to a third party, so thank you, Secret. (Although I can’t really blame Whisper. But it’s refreshing to see a “not for sale” sign in any terms of service at this point.)

“As a user with few or no friends, many secrets from people you may know are not visible. Once you have enough friends, we show you a little more, such as the fact that a particular secret comes from within “Your circle,” which is defined as “Friend” or “Friend of friend.” Then, after quite a few more, we show you whether or not a particular post came from a friend or not. This is critical to establishing a connection without knowing someone’s identity.”

This isn’t from the privacy policy; Secret co-founder David Byttow wrote this actually. The app doesn’t just release every secret published by your contact list in real-time. To avoid situations where mutual friends could compare notes to see which of their other friends made a post, Secret will withhold certain posts. People with more friends are less susceptible to post-withholding, because it’s harder to conclude who could be who in larger groups.

“With vendors, consultants and other service providers who need access to such information to carry out work on our behalf.”

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Don’t get all cocky and start talking the meanest smack imaginable on Secret.

Just because your Secret secret isn’t going to be used to microtarget you into buying Kleenex or whatever it is they do with third-party advertising, that doesn’t make it safe. And it doesn’t mean Secret is keeping your information cloistered. In fact, as this states, Secret lists a number of circumstances where it will share information. And there’s this:

“In connection with, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of Secret assets, financing or acquisition of all or a portion of our business to another Secret”

Secret still shares information with third parties if it’s beneficial to them, they just don’t sell it. And the company still automatically collects information like login info, the IP address used, the type of browser, the pages you view, and the time you viewed them. If that kind of information was leaked, users could be very vulnerable. And even though the app hinted at upcoming privacy improvements, nothing is ever 100 percent secure.

“Anonymity is a privilege.”

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So reads the first sentence of the app’s community guidelines. It’s meant to underline how bullies cannot hide behind randomly assigned user names, but it also reminds us that anonymity is not a guarantee on this service.

There you have it. If you really want to unburden your darkest and most closely guarded secret to an audience of strangers, old-fashioned bathroom graffiti might not provide the instant-feedback loop of comments and likes that “anonymous” social apps like Whisper and Secret provide—but you also won’t have to worry about hackers destroying your life or law enforcement requesting help to find you if your secret involves, ya know, a felony. But at least now you can start to understand what you’ve signed up for.

Photo via stebulus/Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 19, 2014, 11:00 am CST