Facebook got caught paying people $20 a month to let them spy on their phones

  • Facebook has been caught paying people $20 a month to spy on their phones and data.
  • Tech news site TechCrunch discovered the social network was asking some users to give them deep access to their phones and install VPNs in exchange for cash.
  • Facebook has defended the program, but it raises questions about the social network's approach to user privacy, even in the wake of its string of scandals.

Another day, another round of uncomfortable questions for Facebook. 

The Silicon Valley social networking giant has been paying teens and adults up to $20 a month to spy on their phones, their data, and the apps they use, according to a new report from TechCrunch —raising fresh concerns over the company's approach to user privacy.

The tech news site found that Facebook operates a program called "Project Titan," in which it recruits willing Apple iOS and Android users to give them root access to their devices, thereby allowing Facebook to view extensive data on participants' mobile activity.

The app, Facebook Research, appears to be largely similar to Facebook's controversial VPN app Onavo, and shares much of the same code, according to security expert Will Strafach, who was asked to investigate by TechCrunch.

Apple previously banned Onavo from its iPhone and iPad App Store outright over violations of its privacy policy. However, Facebook sidesteps this ban by offering Facebook Protect directly to users, via a program that Apple offers to companies that want to offer custom apps to their own employees. 

As TechCrunch notes, re-offering an app very similar to Onavo, and potentially misusing a program intended for Apple's enterprise customers to do it, may further strain relations between the two tech companies. The two have clashed in the past over their approaches to user privacy. 

An Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that it has no plans to end Facebook Research as a result of the report. 

 “Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we've provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don't share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time," they said in a statement.

Facebook also disputed that the app is a copy-and-pasted version of the banned Onavo app, something that appears to be contradicted by evidence shared by Strafach. 

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Facebook's rationale for the program appears to be to learn more about the apps that people use, in a similar vein to how it has used data gleaned from Onavo to harvest valuable data about how people use their phones.  

 But it also raises serious questions about how Facebook continues to approach and value sensitive user data, as the company attempts to recover from successive privacy scandals throughout 2018 and other, broader crises.

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Facebook also disputed that the program is specifically targeted at teens — but at least some of the attempts to enlist users are specifically aimed at people between 13 and 17, and feature a "parental consent agreement" that is nothing but a tick-box, according to TechCrunch.

Similarly, Facebook asserts that it fully disclosed its involvement in the program. But BuzzFeed News reporter Ryan Mac tried signing up after the TechCrunch report was published, and found very few disclosures to participants that Facebook was behind it. 

"This is the most defiant behavior I have EVER seen by an App Store developer. it's mind blowing," Strafach tweeted. "I still don't know how to best articulate how absolutely floored I am by Facebook thinking they can get away with this."


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