Great reporting by TechCrunch’s Josh Constine:
Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms. Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits, and it has no plans to stop.
Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.
This is a very interesting case. These users are clearly doing this of their own volition; they are making the choice to give up their privacy so Facebook can see literally everything they do on their iPhone. At the same time, we can all agree this scummy, sleazy, and stupid, and I would love for Apple to have the guts to revoke Facebook’s iOS developer account.
They won’t, of course, but if Apple really cares about privacy – they do not, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that they do – they should remove Facebook from the App Store.