Oct 23, 2014 · 3 minutes

There's no pretty way to say this: Whisper is fucked.

Earlier today, it was reported that Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has written to CEO Michael Heyward demanding a Committee staff briefing to explain the company's privacy protections.

In the letter, embedded below, Rockefeller wrote:

To assist the committee in evaluating questions that have been raised about [Whisper's] practices and policies, I request a Committee staff briefing from your company... I also request that you provide the Committee with a copy of the company's current terms of use and privacy policy, as well as copies of the policies in effect at the launch of the company and at the time of [sic] the company introduced its geolocation feature.

As the Chairman of the Committee with jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission and consumer protection issues including online privacy, I take this matter seriously. As Chairman, I have made consumer privacy a top priority and the Committee has actively exercised its jurisdiction over commercial data practices and data security. The letter, and the looming staff briefing -- and possible FTC investigation -- was prompted by revelations published by the Guardian about how Whisper tracks users, including those who had opted to turn off geolocation. Arguably most damning of all was the Guardian's claim that Whisper executives actively try to monitor users who they think may be public figures, or otherwise newsworthy targets.

Rockefeller's letter, however, was just the start of Whisper's very bad day. A few hours later, the Guardian's Paul Lewis and Dominic Rushe published a list of "Ten privacy questions Whisper should answer for Senate committee". In it they lay out more of the details of their reporting, handily demolishing earlier claims by Whisper editor in chief Neetzan Zimmerman (above) that the reporting was inaccurate, or "a pack of vicious lies".

Writes the Guardian:

[One Whisper] executive told the reporters about an apparently sex-obsessed Whisper user who claims to be a lobbyist in Washington DC. “He’s a guy that we’ll track for the rest of his life and he’ll have no idea we’ll be watching him,” the Whisper executive said. The quote was heard by two reporters, as their records of the conversation show.

Zimmerman – who was not present when the executive made the remark – described the quote about the lobbyist as “100% fabricated”. He added: “It is a fabrication because it was never said, and no such person exists.”

That person does exist. Zimmerman’s editorial team nicknamed the lobbyist ‘50 shades of grey’ and believed him to be a potentially newsworthy find. They actively encouraged the Guardian reporters to delve into the lobbyist’s history of activity on the app. The lobbyist was one of the users included in the “Potential Guardian Leads” document that Whisper provided the Guardian. The existence of a document showing beyond any real doubt that Zimmerman lied in his belligerent rebuttal of the Guardian's reporting presents a major, major problem for Whisper as they prepare to face the Senate committee. At this point it is absolutely clear that the person overseeing how Whisper uses its data -- and, presumably, the person who reassured Hayward that it was not being misused -- has lied on the record.

The fact that Heyward now knows this for a fact but still refuses to criticize, let alone fire, his high profile staffer is further proof that Whisper is a ship without a captain. By doing nothing, and saying almost nothing -- beyond a pathetic statement that he "disagrees" with the Guardian's reporting (whatever the hell that means) -- Hayward is all but guaranteeing that the decision on how to respond to the scandal will be taken out of his hands, either by investors or the FTC.

At this point, Hayward can't avoid a grilling by Rockefeller's committee but he still has a very small window to come clean about his company's misdeeds, fire the staffer ultimately responsible and avoid that grilling turning into a funeral pyre for Whisper.

10.22.14 Chairman Rockefeller Letter to Whisper FINAL SENT _Redacted

[Image credit: USA Today]