An app promoted on Facebook’s behalf monitors everything from kids’ text messages and e-mails to their Amazon order history.
The news: 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.
After TechCrunch’s article was published, Facebook said it would pull the version of its app for Apple devices, though it will presumably still be available for Android phones.
Privacy backlash: The revelation that Facebook has been following some teens’ every move online via their phones comes at a time when the company is already under fire for multiple privacy controversies. In a statement to TechCrunch, the company said there was “nothing secret” about the app, and that fewer than 5% of the people who chose to participate were teens and all of them had signed parental consent.
Hidden agenda: Oka, but there are still very good reasons to be concerned. For a start, the beta-testing firms sometimes pitch the app as a general market research project on mobile usage, only revealing Facebook’s involvement at a late stage in the sign-up process. And while the services require parental approval for teens, it’s unclear exactly how rigorous the vetting process is.
The volume and breadth of data being scooped up by the app, which is sometimes referred to as Project Atlas, is also staggering: last summer, Facebook pulled a VPN app it owns called Onavo Protect from Apple’s app store because 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.
Project Paranoia: Facebook’s insatiable desire to track us online is partly driven by fear a potential competitor might displace it. 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 and unsuccessfully attempting to buy the rival social network, Facebook copied some of its core features. 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.
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