After a series of mishaps and misdemeanours, Facebook’s popularity certainly took a dip in 2018. The social-networking giant has been at the receiving end of much criticism after news surfaced that Facebook enabled third parties to harvest personal user data for targeted ads. Now, in a bid to acquire more info on its competitors, Facebook has been reportedly paying people aged 13-35 to install a “Facebook Research” VPN, which is used to monitor the user’s phone and web activity.
The VPN app is similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app, another VPN that the company had launched earlier which was found to be collecting user data as well. The Onavo app was banned by Apple in June and was removed by Facebook in August 2018.
The latest Facebook Research app sidesteps the app store and monetarily rewards teens and adults who downloaded the app. Users received $20 per month along with referral fees, like a payment for selling your data to the social networking company. The app installs root certificates in iOS and Android that gives it root access to the network traffic. This could be a violation of Apple policy as Facebook is analyzing phone activity by decoding network activity.
Facebook told TechCrunch that the company has indeed been running the program to “gather data on usage habits” and that it doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
The social network has been paying users since 2016 to sell their data by installing the app on iOS and Android. The TechCrunch report claims Facebook even asked users to take screenshots of their Amazon order history page. Facebook, however, is shy of associating itself with the app. It is being serviced through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest, to hide Facebook’s involvement.
The Facebook Research app reportedly can parse through user’s private messages in social media apps, web searches, emails, browsing history, location information and more. It’s unclear exactly what data Facebook is harvesting in the name of “tracking usage habits”, but it does get scarily deep-level access to user data.
The app proves just how desperate the social network company is right now to maintain its dominance. The data-sniffing VPN app Onavo gave Facebook inputs about WhatsApp’ meteoric rise before the Mark Zuckerberg-owned company swooped in and acquired them. The Onavo app also gave Facebook clues as to what features to copy from other apps. Since the app was banned and removed by Apple, the Facebook Research app, might just be another attempt to resume harvesting user data to stay ahead of the game.