Update, February 22, 2019 (11:10 AM ET): Shortly after publishing the original article below, Facebook removed the iOS version of the Facebook Research App, itself reportedly a virtual clone of its previously-pulled iOS app Facebook Onavo Protect.
Now, Facebook is removing all unpaid research apps from the Google Play Store as well as terminating the data-collecting aspects of the Onavo Protect app (via TechCrunch). Onavo Protect — which is a VPN as well — will remain on the Play Store for the time being while users find a replacement. Eventually, it will be removed as well.
Hopefully, Facebook has learned some lessons over the past year as far as user data and privacy are concerned. Going forward, we hope the company finds more conspicuous ways of conducting market research.
Original article, January 30, 2019 (04:09 AM ET): Facebook has had a tumultuous 2018, as the company faced privacy scandal after privacy scandal. Now, it’s emerged that the company has been paying people to install a VPN so they can have almost unfettered access to your activities.
According to TechCrunch, Facebook has been paying up to $20 a month to users who install a Facebook Research app on Android and iOS. This so-called “Project Atlas” initiative, which has apparently been in effect since 2016, targets users between the ages of 13 and 35.
The terms for the app reveal that it collects your app activities and data, internet browsing history, and data from encrypted apps. Furthermore, a representative for security app Guardian Mobile Firewall told the outlet Facebook could also collect private messages in social media apps, messages and media from chat apps, and your location. TechCrunch adds that Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history as part of the initiative.
A clone of a banned app?
The VPN is reportedly similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that was pulled from the Apple App Store last year for privacy violations. However, Facebook calls on iOS users to side-load the Facebook Research app by declaring the social network to be a trusted developer.
In any event, the outlet’s research showed the app seems to have plenty of references to the Onavo app. In fact, the Guardian Mobile Firewall representative said the app shared so much references to Onavo Protect that it seemed like a “poorly re-branded build.”
The company apparently ordered an ad campaign for the initiative on Instagram and Snapchat, targeting young people between the ages of 13 and 17. The campaign didn’t mention Facebook but, when minors attempt to sign up, a parental consent form reveals the network’s involvement.
Getting paid to sell your privacy seems like a reasonable exchange, but targeting kids is questionable. While the prospect of pocket money may have enticed the teenagers — and their parents had the final say — we are all only just coming to grips with the nature and implications of digital privacy. The lack of awareness in this area continues to lead people to surprises — like that they’ve agreed to let Google trace their steps across the planet. So, if we can’t say this is outright exploitative, Facebook may at least be benefiting from the general naivety of the persons involved
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that it was using the initiative to learn how people use their phones and other platforms. Would you give a company access to your phone and browsing data in exchange for cash? Let us know in the comments!