Facebook paid some of its users, including teenagers, with monthly gift cards valued up to $20 to get nearly full access to data on their phones. The company harvested the data on the phones with a special “Facebook Research” app that monitored the users’ internet traffic.
A spokesperson of Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that the social network monitors phone usage through the research app. The iOS version of the app has already been blocked by Apple, but the Android version of the app continues to exist.
Since 2016, Facebook asks users aged between 13 and 35 year old to install an app called Facebook Research. The app offers participants an amount of maximum $20 a month paid in gift cards. In exchange, a root certificate is installed which gives the social network the ability to see users’ private messages, emails, web searches, and browsing activity.
Besides that, participants are also asked to sent screenshots from their Amazon purchases, which show what they’ve ordered in the past from the online retailer.
The Facebook Research app is not available through the App Store or Google Play. Instead, the app is distributed through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest.
Based on reporting from TechCrunch, Apple has blocked the possibility for Facebook to distribute the app. The Cupertino tech giant would reportedly do so because it found Facebook violated the rules of its developer program. Also beta versions of Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger would therefore no longer work.
Facebook has stated that its Facebook Research program is no secret and that the company doesn’t spy on users because participating users have given their permission to collect the data. The company also added that only 5% of the participating users were teenagers. Of these users, the parents would have given their permission to allow Facebook to collect data on their children.
In the past, Facebook also offered a VPN app called Onavo Protect which was also used by the social network to monitor internet traffic of users. In exchange, users of the app were promised a more secure internet connection. Also this app had to be removed from the Apple App Store because it violated Apple’s privacy rules. The app is still available on the Google Play Store.