Facebook is ending a controversial research program on Apple devices hours after it was reported that the social media giant has been paying teens to monitor their smartphone usage.
The company has been running a program to collect user data from paid volunteers for the past three years as part of a research project, TechCrunch reported late Tuesday. As one aspect of the program, Facebook was targeting users between the ages of 13 and 25, the report said.
Documentation on the website of Centercode, one of the third-party beta testing services carrying out the research on Facebook’s behalf, suggests that users in multiple markets, including India, participated as test subjects at different stages of time.
Responding to the report, a Facebook spokesperson challenged the report’s characterizations of the Facebook Research app. “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App,” the spokesperson said.
In a continued rebuttal, the spokesperson stressed that teens made up only a minor segment of the study.
“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.”
The decision to shut down the iOS app could be a preemptive move to avoid further scrutiny from the iPhone maker, which pulled Onavo Protect, a VPN service that Facebook was using to collect some user data, from the App Store. The Research app circumvented this by suggesting users install a custom certificate on their iOS phone — a method Apple offers for enterprise applications. This also enables an app to glean more data than it otherwise could from the phone.
The report about the existence of Facebook’s Research app sparked immediate criticism from industry insiders.
This is blatantly against Apple’s rules for enterprise app distribution. It’s not arguable. It’s not even close.
Facebook is slapping Apple in the face, in broad daylight, for the world to see, because they know they’re invincible.
Wonder if anyone at Apple will ever hit back. https://t.co/KMIfKmifFE
— Marco Arment (@marcoarment) January 30, 2019
In its statement, Facebook did not say whether it also plans to shut down the program on the Android platform. Applause, another third-party beta testing service, had stopped accepting new user registrations for the program at the time of writing, though Centercode was still allowing users to participate.
Update at 7:30 a.m. Pacific: Apple says it has revoked Facebook’s iOS enterprise certificate. “Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. 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.”