Facebook has shut down a research app that paid its volunteers in order to gain unfettered access to data on their mobile phone. The volunteers were aged as young as 13.
An investigation that was conducted by Tech Crunch raised the lid on the Facebook Research App, which bypassed the Apple App Store in order to seek out users through unofficial beta testing networks. The app paid the users aged 13 to 35 a maximum of $20 (£15.30) per month in order to gain access to data including private emails, messages, location history, and web browsing activity.
The report alleged that the social media giant had even asked its users to screenshot their order history from Amazon.
Facebook said that it removed the app from usage on iOS software several hours following the publication of the Tech Crunch investigation, however, it did not disclose whether it would be completely removing the app from Android.
However, a follow-up statement that was released by Apple confirmed that it had been the one to discontinue use of the said app: “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organisation.”
It added: “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.”
The Verge reported that Apple said that it has banned Facebook from the launching beta testing versions of any of its apps on iOS, including Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook itself.
The app seemed to be a replica of Onavo, the other market research app of Facebook which was banned by Apple in 2018. Even though Facebook said that the Research App was created two years before Onavo was taken down. An analysis by Recode hinted that the coding of the two apps was essentially the same.
A spokesperson from Facebook stated: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored.”
He added: “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 onboarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.”
Facebook said that less than five percent of users of the app were teens, which had all provided signed parental consent forms.
The news comes as the social media giant is preparing to publish its quarterly results later that night, amid the speculation that ailing user numbers are forcing the platform to come up with some new ways to attract a younger audience. Tech Crunch reported that the Research App could have been one of those methods.