Facebook Solicited Teens to Download Its Surveillance Tool

An investigation reveals that Facebook has been secretly paying users ages 13 to 35 since 2016 to install an iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app that gives the company access to all of their smartphone and Internet activity. The Research app is similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and may also be a violation of Apple policy. Legislators on both sides of the aisle were infuriated at the news, decrying the surveillance technology. Facebook’s earlier Onavo app was also criticized as spyware.

The Verge reports senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) declaring that, “wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) was also horrified, asking incredulously, “Facebook PAID teenagers to install a surveillance device on their phones without telling them it gave Facebook power to spy on them? Some kids as young as 13. Are you serious?”

Numerous lawmakers speaking out against Facebook “have already proposed their own bills seeking to protect the data of consumers.” Currently, only one federal data privacy law, authored by senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) has been passed: the 2000 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Markey’s response to the most recent revelation was that, “it is inherently manipulative to offer teens money in exchange for their personal information when younger users don’t have a clear understanding how much data they’re handing over and how sensitive it is.” House and Senate commerce committees both intend to have more hearings on tech regulation this year.

Senator Mark Warner (D-West Virginia), who is the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg asking if users “actually knew how much data they were giving away by downloading the app and authorizing it access to the device.” He criticized the company’s lack of transparency, both with Onavo and the Research app.

TechCrunch’s extensive report on Facebook Research stated that the users who agreed to download the app were paid up to $20 per month plus referral fees. Facebook does not administer the program but, rather, shields its identity through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest where it is referred to occasionally as “Project Atlas.” TechCrunch says that, “Facebook admitted … it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits, and it has no plans to stop.”

Guardian Mobile Firewall security expert Will Strafach noted that the app will give Facebook “the ability to continuously collect … private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps — including photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed.”

It’s clear, says TechCrunch, that “even after Apple’s warnings and the removal of Onavo Protect, Facebook is still aggressively collecting data on its competitors via Apple’s iOS platform.” “I have never seen such open and flagrant defiance of Apple’s rules by an App Store developer,” said Strafach. Apple has not yet responded.

Google Will Stop Peddling a Data Collector Through Apple’s Back Door, TechCrunch, 1/30/19
Apple Shows Facebook Who Has the Power in an App Dispute, The New York Times, 1/31/19