Facebook will shut down the iOS version of its Research app after a TechCrunch report revealed how it was paying users aged 13-35 to install a VPN, allowing it to gather data on their phone and web activity.
This follows an incident last August in which Apple asked Facebook to remove its Onavo VPN from the App Store, since it was violating Apple’s data collection policies.
To try and get around this, the Facebook Research app bypassed the App Store, and allowed users to side-load it on their iOS devices. The app will continue to run on Android, but will no longer be available to iOS users.
The market research program awarded volunteers with a $20 gift guard in exchange to access to large amounts of data on their phones. This included the likes of private messages, location data, and more. It even asked users to manually screenshot their Amazon order history. This was achieved through a custom root certificate, required for the Facebook Research app.
In a statement, Facebook objected to part of TechCrunch‘s report:
“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. 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.”
Facebook also denied that Facebook Research was designed to replace the previous Onavo app. However, TechCrunch notes that both apps share similar code.
Apple’s response to the situation?
It will be interesting to see how Apple responds to this apparent violation of its guidelines. On his popular Daring Fireball blog, Apple pundit John Gruber writes that:
“To my eyes, this action constitutes Facebook declaring war on Apple’s iOS privacy protections. I don’t think it would be out of line for Apple to revoke Facebook’s developer certificate, maybe even pull their apps from the App Store. No regular developer would get away with this. Facebook is betting that their apps are too popular, that they can do what they want and Apple has to sit back and take it. I keep saying Facebook is a criminal enterprise, and I’m not exaggerating. Sometimes a bully needs to be punched in the face, not just told to knock it off.”
Tim Cook has previously gone up against Facebook on the subject of privacy. Last year, Tim Cook was asked what he would do if he was in the same situation as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “I wouldn’t be in this situation,” Cook cooly replied.