Bombshell Investigation Reveals Facebook Pays Young Users For Their Data

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Another day, another privacy scandal for Facebook.

A new investigation by TechCrunch reveals that Facebook secretly paid a number of users, including teenagers as young as 13, to install an app that gave the tech giant extensive access to their personal data. Users ages 13 to 35 were paid up to $20 per month plus affiliate fees to install the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” VPN app that tracked their smartphone and web activity, a program referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas.”

Project Atlas bares a striking similarity to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app. Onavo began as an Israeli analytics startup that helped users monitor their data usage before it was acquired by Facebook in 2013. After the acquisition, Facebook turned the service into a data collection tool that monitored smartphone users’ behavior outside Facebook’s core mobile apps. Facebook pulled Onavo Protect from the App Store in August 2018 after Apple declared it violated part of the iOS developer agreement that regulates the collection and use of personal data.

History appears to be repeating itself with Project Atlas. TechCrunch reports that “Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity.”

Facebook confirmed the existence of the Research program to the tech news site and stated that it would shut down the iOS version of the app. However, before the company had a chance to follow through, an Apple spokesperson announced that Facebook had violated the App Store’s policies and the app had been blocked before the social network had a chance to remove it voluntarily.

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple,” read a statement provided by the spokesperson. “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

A Facebook spokesperson also provided a statement that defended the program and questioned the journalistic integrity of TechCrunch’s report.

“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored,” said the Facebook statement. “Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

For now, it appears that Facebook’s Research program will still run on Android, and this latest breach is yet another reminder that privacy will continue to dwindle in the digital age unless users take a clear and assertive stand.