Google Follows Facebook, Disables iPhone App That Studied User Habits

Facebook logo on Samsung phone
Facebook paid teens to install an app to spy on their internet and phone use

01 February, 2019

"Given the tech backlash in general and the intense focus on Facebook's privacy policies, this is most unfortunate".

According to TechCrunch, the Menlo Park, Calif. company - which has taken heat for a range of privacy-related scandals, breaches and snafus over the previous year - has been paying teenagers and adults up to $20 per month to install a "Facebook Research" app on their Apple or Android phones. "Despite early reports, there was nothing "secret" about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App", the spokesperson argued.

"Finally, less than 5% of the people who chose to participate in this market research programme were teens - all of them with signed parental consent forms".

According to Alex Heath, none of Facebook's internal iOS apps/betas - used by thousands of Facebook employees - are working on iOS devices right now because Apple revoked the company's certificate.

The Facebook Research app is similar to the Onavo app banned by Apple last summer.

However: Facebook removed that app from the App Store past year after Apple said the app violated store policies, according to The Verge.

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It's still unclear whether Apple will revoke Google's enterprise certificates. "We don't share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time".

The report goes on to explain that the Google app, called Screenwise (but since rebranded as part of the Google Opinion Rewards program), was launched in 2012 and let users earn gift cards in exchange for sideloading the VPN app that will let Google monitor their traffic and data. They contacted the Facebook team in August and told them that the said app violated their data collection policies, following which it was taken off their store. But Facebook was distributing the data-collecting app to people outside the company, including an unspecified number of teenagers, according to a TechCrunch report on Tuesday.

"I don't think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission", mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. Onavo also helped Facebook get clues as to what apps to copy, desired features in apps and mistakes to avoid! Beta recruitment sites like Applause, BetaBound and uTest were told to target users aged 13 to 35 to join - the teenage demographic seems particularly valuable for Facebook as young adults have flocked out of the platform for others.

That was good for the privacy of iOS users, but the past few weeks have brought new revelations about Android apps secretly sharing data with Facebook, even when users are logged out or don't even have a Facebook account. There is at least one case, though, in which Facebook has put a price on your data. That app is referred to internally as Project Atlas, but offered to iOS and Android users as "Facebook Research".

"During the installation process of the app, Facebook asks users to install an Enterprise Developer Certification and VPN and then "trust" Facebook with root access to the data their phone transmits".

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