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Facebook’s Been Paying Users To Install VPN App That Spies On Them

The Facebook Research app is available from third-party app sources and monitors all user phone and web activity.

Published
Tech News
2 min read
The Facebook VPN app is similar to its Onavo Protect App that was banned by Apple earlier.
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Facebook has been secretly paying some of its users – especially teens – to install what it calls a “Research App” similar to a VPN on their phones. This app is available via third-party app services and not on the Apple IOS store.

According to a report in Tech Crunch, The app asks for “root access” which means it has full access to data on a user’s phone. This is in violation of Apple’s user policy and hence an earlier app called Onavo Protect by Facebook was banned on the app store.

The report says that since 2016 Facebook has been paying teens and adults in the age group of 13 to 35, up to $20 per month to install and run this app. What Facebook gets in return is access to all user data and web activity, including shopping behaviour, which allows it to map trends better than its competitors.

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Instagram posts by UTest ask users to download the “research app”. 
Instagram posts by UTest ask users to download the “research app”. 
Photo: Tech Crunch

The Facebook “research app” was apparently distributed using three third-party beta testing services: uTest, Applause and BetaBound. Earlier it had a similar app available on the App store by the name of Onavo Protect, which was found in violation of Apple’s privacy norms and hence banned. However, Facebook continued to implore users to download a similar app through third-party services.

uTest ran ads on Instagram for a “paid social-media study”. It asks for permission to access user data and says “There are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves the tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps. You will be compensated by Applause for your child’s participation.”

A researcher looking into the code on the app found it very similar to the Onavo Protect app Facebook had earlier, which it got after acquiring the company in 2014 for $120 million. The app is also called Project Atlas in some app documentation.

The Facebook research app apparently has code similar to the banned Onavo app.
The Facebook research app apparently has code similar to the banned Onavo app.
Photo: Tech Crunch

Facebook has since shut down the IOS version of the app after the report by Tech Crunch, but it is still available on Android. That may not be for long. Facebook has received a lot of flak in the past year for its lackadaisical handling of user data. This app that voluntarily bypasses privacy policies and snoops into user data is a new low for the social media giant given the amount of attention data privacy has been getting these days.

With inputs from Tech Crunch

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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