Apple bans Facebook Research App that allegedly spied on teenagers

By Sourabh Kulesh | Updated 31 Jan 2019
Apple bans Facebook Research App that allegedly spied on teenagers
  • A report claims that Facebook “was breaking Apple’s policy” by paying up to $20 a month to users for root network access to all data passing through their phones.

Highlights:

  • Apple bans Facebook Research App that accessed root-level information on users’ phones.
  • Facebook allegedly paid up to $20 per month to users to download the VPN app.
  • The social media company denies any wrongdoing, says it took consent to access data.

 

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It seems that Facebook hasn’t learnt from its mistakes. It is already shrouded by several controversies related to data theft, yet new reports of spying and data collection activity crop up ever so often, putting the data protection claims of the Menlo Park-based company under the lens. In the latest development, it is alleged that Facebook was spying on teenagers through an app by accessing all the data passing through their phones in exchange of up to $20 a month. Apple has now banned the app.

According to TechCrunch, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that gives it access to users’ data and web activity. The report claimed that Facebook sidestepped the App Store and “rewarded” teenagers and adults to download the Research app. Reportedly, Facebook admitted that it was running the Research programme to gather data on usage habits.

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The report says that since 2016, Facebook has been paying users from ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. “Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe,” the report mentioned.

Now, the publication says that seven hours after the spying story was published, Facebook said it would shut down the iOS version of its Research app. Reportedly, Apple had already blocked the Research app on the basis of policy violation by the social media platform. According to an Apple spokesperson, the Facebook’s Research app was blocked even before the Facebook ‘seemingly’ pulled it voluntarily. The iPhone-maker said that it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allowed Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store.

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“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organisation. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data,” an Apple spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Facebook also issued a statement claiming that it did no do anything wrong. “Key facts about this market research program 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,” Facebook told TechCrunch. The Research program will continue to run on Android.

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Meanwhile, Facebook circulated a memo among its employees who are reportedly furious with the company. Some Facebook employees blame the social media giant for running afoul of Apple's enterprise developer ruleset. In response to this, Apple revoked the developer certificate  which authenticated the research apps that were also used in the key internal Facebook apps by tens of thousands of employees every day.

The affected apps include internal builds of Workplace, Facebook's internal version of Facebook for employee communications; Workplace Chat; Instagram; Messenger; “and other internal apps like Mobile Home and the Ride app.” Due to Apple’s revocation, Facebook employees are now unable to communicate with colleagues, access internal information, and even catch company transportation, Business Insider reported.

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This is not the first time that Apple has banned a Facebook app. This VPN app is similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app, another VPN that the social media giant had launched earlier and was found to be collecting user data. The Onavo app was banned by Apple in June and was removed by Facebook in August 2018. The latest incident would certainly worsen Apple-Facebook relationship that is already going through a rough patch.

Related Read: Mark Zuckerberg ordered all Facebook executives to switch to Android smartphones

Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook took a dig at Facebook claiming that it was too late for Facebook to regulate itself. At that time, Facebook was being criticised for its involvement in the users’ data sharing controversy with now-redundant UK firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg replied by saying that the criticism from his counterpart at Apple was unfounded and not at all aligned with the truth.

Related Read:

Top Tech Stories That Made Headlines in 2018

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Sourabh Kulesh
A journalist at heart; has knowledge of a wide gamut of topics related to enterprise and consumer tech.
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