Facebook Research has been following some teens’ every move online via their phones. It comes at a time when the company is already under fire for multiple privacy controversies. The app, promoted on Facebook’s behalf, monitors everything from kids’ text messages and emails to their Amazon order history.
An investigation by TechCrunch has revealed that Facebook has been using app beta-testing services Applause, BetaBound, and uTest to promote a “Facebook Research” app that installs a virtual private network, or VPN, to record a user’s phone and web activity. The app, which has been available since 2016, offers users between 13 and 35 years old up to $20 a month in return for installing it.
Apple actually banned the app from its App Store in June and it was officially removed in August. Apple found that it was sending information back to the social network about people’s online activities in violation of Apple’s privacy policies. The revelation that Facebook has been circumventing the app store with its research app will further inflame tensions between the companies. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has been deeply critical of Facebook’s attitude to handling people’s data.
Facebook first got into the data-sniffing business when it acquired Onavo for around $120 million in 2014. The VPN app helped users track and minimize their mobile data plan usage, but also gave Facebook deep analytics about what other apps they were using.
By observing what people do on their phones, it can spot when a new service starts becoming popular with teens. For instance, after identifying Snapchat’s early momentum, it copied some of the rival social network’s core features after its attempts to buy Snapchat were rebuffed. But the extent to which Facebook appears to be willing to go to monitor teens’ digital lives seems bound to provoke yet another privacy backlash.
By paying $20 per month, Facebook could deny any ‘wrong doing’. Users ‘agreed’ to there data being harvested and were paid for the access.