Facebook has been paying users a monthly fee in the region of $20 to use ‘Facebook Research’ — a VPN app that grants the company full access to all of their phone and web activity.
This development was brought to light by TechCrunch — to whom Facebook admitted it was gathering data on usage habits via the Research program.
“Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we’ve provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don’t share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time.” Facebook, in a statement acknowledging the program’s existence.
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The app, which sidesteps Apple’s own TestFlight beta testing program and the App Store, is made available to users through BetaBound, uTest, and Applause which are all beta testing services. Under the guise of a “paid social media research study”, these three services ran ads on Instagram and Snapchat targeted at the 13-35 age demographic.
When minors sign up for the app, they are prompted to seek parental approval through a form, a portion of which reads “there are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps.”
Users are rewarded for downloading and giving the Facebook Research app root access to network traffic so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity. This is a violation of Apple’s policy as the app works in a similar manner to Facebook’s earlier Onavo Protect app that was banned in June 2018 by Apple.
In the wake of Techcrunch’s expose, the app was blocked by Apple just before Facebook withdrew it from the App Store.