Facebook Just Pulled an iOS App That Tracked Teens’ Phone Use in Exchange for Cash

January 30, 2019, 12:41 PM UTC

Facebook will remove an app from Apple’s iOS platform that allows it to monitor almost everything users do on their iPhones, most likely because that level of access is banned under Apple’s rules. The app, which was available via third-party beta-testing services rather than the App Store, is intended for use by teens and millennials, as a way of learning more about how they use their phones.

The app, Facebook Research, is similar to the Onavo Protect app that Apple effectively kicked off its platform last August. While the rewards for Onavo Protect users included a reduction in background data usage and the blocking of “online threats,” Facebook Research—which has operated since 2016—offers users a monthly $20 gift card.

To use Facebook Research, you need to install the company’s custom root certificate on your phone, giving it extremely deep access to everything from messaging chats and web searches to emails and location information. This root certificate installation is banned on iOS.

After TechCrunch reported what Facebook was up to late Tuesday, the company pulled the iOS version of the app. However, the Android version will apparently stay up, as is the case with the Onavo app.

What was particularly eye-catching about TechCrunch’s report was the fact that the $20 monthly reward was on offer to users between the ages of 13 and 35, meaning Facebook has been paying teens to monitor their phone usage. People signed up to use the app through beta-testing services such as Applause, BetaBound and uTest, not all of which made clear that it was part of a Facebook research program.

Facebook disputed the implication that the app’s nature was secretive, as “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,” the company griped to TechCrunch. “Finally, less than 5% of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

Facebook declined to say how many people signed up to use the app, so it is difficult to judge how many teens would have been involved.

This article was updated to note Facebook’s refusal to give numbers.

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