As the battle for social media dominance wages on, Facebook was recently discovered trying to gain the upper hand by paying teens for access to their private data. The platform has been secretly paying young people to install a virtual private network known as “Facebook Research” that allows the firm to keep track of their phone and internet activity.

Facebook has been paying people aged 13 to 35 as much as US$20 per month, in addition to referral fees, to give up their privacy; Tech Crunch reports that they have even asked their users to take screenshots of their Amazon order history pages in a move that is believed to help pinpoint ad targeting and provide a greater understanding of which kinds of users buy certain items.

Facebook used beta testing services such as BetaBound, uTest, and Applause to hide their involvement. Experts say that the app allows Facebook to continuously collect a wide range of sensitive data, including chats, videos and photos sent from instant messaging apps, web browsing activity and searches, private messages sent through social media apps, and location information. In other words, they are essentially being given almost limitless access to people’s devices who install the app.

Violation of Apple’s policies

Tech Crunch pointed out that the root access to network traffic granted by the Research app was a violation of Apple’s policy as it allows the social network to decrypt users’ phone activity and analyse it; Facebook responded by shutting down the iOS version, but it will continue to be available to Android users. It is not known whether Facebook pulled the program voluntarily in the wake of the report or if Apple asked them to halt it. Last year, Apple reportedly told Facebook privately to voluntarily remove a similar program, Onavo, form the App store. The new Facebook Research app, which is also referred to as Project Atlas, was sideloaded by users.

Facebook appears to be desperate to protect its social media dominance, and the move is unlikely to go over well with Apple, whose CEO, Tim Cook, has been vocal in his criticism of Facebook data collection practices. Facebook has been criticised across the board for its handling of user data, and it continues to lose ground among the teen crowd to competitors like Snapchat and YouTube; its use of targeted advertising based on user’s clicking habits has also come increasingly under fire.

Tobias Matthews

Tobias Matthews


Writer at Fourth Source.