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Teens, young adults willingly shared private data with Facebook for cash

Facebook’s privacy policies have earned the company plenty of criticism, but some teenagers and young adults willingly allow the network to access smartphone data in exchange for some cash. After an investigative report by Tech Crunch suggested the app violated App Store guidelines, the Facebook Research VPN app is no longer available for iOS, while the Android version appears to remain available.

The Facebook Research app gathers usage data and examines smartphone activity of users. In exchange, Facebook sends each user up to $20 a month for the data. The app is available for users between age 13 and 35, while users can also earn “referral fees.”

According to Tech Crunch, the data the app collected was widespread and even included screenshotting Amazon purchase history. While the extent of the data used in the app is unclear, the level of access suggests even items like private chats, emails, and location information could be gathered from the app. Tech Crunch says the app was distributed using three programs for beta testing apps.

After the report, Facebook said it would pull the app from iOS, but Apple appeared to beat the network in removing the app, blocking the app on Tuesday, January 29. The app violated the App Store agreement by using the Enterprise Developer Program for non-employees. The program is designed only for use within a company or organization, Apple said. 

The Facebook Research app shares similarities with earlier Facebook efforts to gather user data after acquiring a company called Onavo. The company used the technology for metrics like comparing the number of WhatsApp messages to Messenger activity. The related apps stemming from Onavo were also removed from the App Store for violating data policies.

Facebook says that the app isn’t a “secret” app and says that the app clearly outlined the data collection. The network says less than five percent of users were teenagers, all of whom also had parental consent forms signed.

Facebook’s business model is built largely on targeted advertising, allowing businesses to reach specific audiences by using user data to target ads (data which the advertiser doesn’t see). The research app returned some of that monetary benefit to the user, but had access to a much larger set of data such as private messages and usage of other apps.

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