Facebook has been paying teens for unfettered access to their data

30 January, 2019, 22:40 | Author: Patty Hardy
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the annual F8 summit at the San Jose Mc Enery Convention Center in San Jose California

The program wasn't just sketchy - it also blatantly violated Apple's developer guidelines.

Launched in 2016, the "research app", first uncovered by TechCrunch, allows Facebook to continuously collect a user's private data, including chats from instant messaging apps, photos and videos, emails, web browsing activity, and more.

Even the teens are bound to send the screenshots of the Amazon purchases they make while remaining a part of the study.

Apple's iOS platform restricts apps more than Android, so Facebook used Apple's enterprise program to distribute its tracking software. The app was previously kicked out of the official App Store for breaking Apple's rules on privacy: Facebook had to use the cert to skirt Cupertino's ban.

TechCrunch also reported that Facebook took steps to hide its involvement in the "research" project, opting to contract outside companies to promote and find recruits for a "paid social media research study".

A scathing report from TechCrunch explains in great detail how Facebook devised a Facebook Research app for iPhone and Android that was created to spy on everything a user did on a smartphone.

A Facebook spokesperson told CBS News, "Key facts about this market research program are being ignored".

The company has now revoked Facebook's developer certificates, which means Facebook is no longer able to distribute any of its other internal apps to employees - including the Research app, of course.

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"It wasn't "spying" as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate", it added. And a handful of participants - Facebook says less than 5% - were teenagers, who were required to get a parent or guardian's permission to participate; whether those guardians understood what their kids were up to is also unclear. This is the core model that's made companies like Facebook and Google some of the world's most valuable firms - they are, at heart, advertising companies.

At the heart of the issue is an app for iPhones called "Facebook Research" that the company advertised through third parties. The company was distributing the app outside of Apple's App Store, using a special program created to help companies install internal apps on their employee's phones.

Last year, Facebook's virtual private network (VPN) app Onavo was banned from the Apple App Store for collecting users information such as specifics on phone and app use.

In a statement to tech site Recode, Apple said it started the Developer Enterprise Program "solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization".

Facebook said it was pulling its app in response to criticism.

That Facebook's business model is built around a convenience vs. privacy tradeoff is not a novel thought.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the nation's chief privacy watchdog, is likely to impose a record fine against the company for failing to protect users' personal information, Bloomberg News reported this month.

Since TechCrunch published its investigation, Facebook has discontinued the iOS version of its VPN app. The company acquired a VPN app called Ovano in 2014 that promised to help users secure their Wifi traffic for free.

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