Facebook says it will shutter a market research programme that sparked outcry when a report claimed the social network was paying teens and adults to install an application to track their phone and Web activities. According to a report, the Menlo Park, California-based company is paying as much as $20 (roughly Rs. 1,400) monthly to people to install a VPN app called Facebook Research on their iOS or Android smartphones. The app, the existence of which Facebook has confirmed, is offered via third-party app testing platforms and asks for root-level permissions, giving it broad access to the activity on the participating user’s smartphone.
According to a report by TechCrunch, Facebook Research seems to be a successor to company’s Onavo Protect VPN service that it had acquired back in 2013. The social giant had to remove Onavo Protect from Apple’s App Store over privacy concerns in August last year. Onavo Protect had proved quite useful for the company as it helped Facebook keep a tab on the users outside of its own apps and how they were interacting with its competitors. It seems the company is now using the Facebook Research app to do the same by circumventing Apple.
Facebook responded to the report with a statement to The Verge, claiming parts of the report were sensationalistic and that it had been up-front with its motives. “Key facts about this market research programme are being ignored… Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. 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. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
The TechCrunch report claims the Facebook Research app is offered by three beta-testing platforms – Applause, BetaBound, and uTest – to keep Facebook’s involvement hidden as well as to avoid Apple’s official beta-testing platform TestFlight. It has reportedly been distributed since 2016 and the company is said to be running advertisements on Instagram and Snapchat offering people (aged 13-35) cash for participating in a social media research. The signup pages for the program don’t mention Facebook, the report added.
TechCrunch claims that even though Facebook Research is not being offered via the App Store, the app is still in violation of Apple policy as the app asks its users to install an Enterprise Developer Certificate and ‘Trust’ Facebook to give the company access to their data. Apple requires that developers only use the certification method to distribute apps to their employees, and not to normal consumers. The distribution to randomly hired and paid volunteers certainly doesn’t go in line with Apple policy.
“If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the Certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps – including photos/videos sent to others, emails, Web searches, Web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed,” a security expert told TechCrunch.
With Facebook increasingly becoming synonymous to a company with no moral qualms about its policies around people’s privacy, revelations such as this are becoming unsurprising. The company clearly has no misgivings about putting its growth and revenue over user privacy.