Last year in August, Apple forced Facebook to remove its Onavo VPN app from the App Store as it was silently collecting user information and data on the pretext of being a VPN app. Hungry for data, Facebook started paying people $20 per month to use its VPN app.
A detailed TechCrunch report highlights that Facebook has been running a “research” program where it asks users to install its “Facebook Research” VPN app on their device. During the installation process, the user ends up giving access to their phone data and browsing history in lieu of $20/month.
Since Onavo was banned on the App Store, Facebook uses an installation process that completely bypasses the App Store by using beta testing services like Applause, BetaBound, and uTest.
Facebook keeps its name hidden in the entire beta process and to entice users to join the research program, it has been running ads for “Project Atlas” on Instagram and Snapchat. The ad states the requirement of 13-17 years old teenagers for a “paid social media research study.”
The sign-up page for the Research VPN app does not mention Facebook anywhere as well. It is only when someone under 18 tries to join the program that a form seeking the required permissions from their parents reveals Facebook’s involvement.
If minors try to sign-up, they’re asked to get their parents’ permission with a form that reveal’s Facebook’s involvement and says “There are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves the tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps. You will be compensated by Applause for your child’s participation.”
All participants are paid $20/monthly via e-gift cards, with an additional referral bonus of $20 also available if their friend joins the program.
During the installation process of the app, Facebook asks users to install an Enterprise Developer Certification and VPN and then “trust” Facebook with root access to the data their phone transmits.”
As per Apple’s guidelines, developers can only use this certification for internal testing of corporate apps so Facebook is clearly not adhering to that rule here.
So what kind of data is collected by Facebook as a part of this “research”? This includes the apps installed on your device, how you use them, the amount of time you spend inside them, the data you share with them, and more. Your browsing history is also shared with Facebook along with other online services you use. This data is collected even when the apps and services one uses makes use of encryption. Worse, Facebook is even asking some users to go to their Amazon account and upload a screenshot of their order history.
Facebook has confirmed that it is running the research program to collect user data to know how people use their phone and other services.
“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,” as told by a Facebook spokesperson to TechCrunch.
Make sure to read the full report from TechCrunch by hitting the source link below as it provides an incredibly detailed picture of Facebook’s shady practices.