Facebook Denies Spying on Consumers, Despite Evidence of ‘Research VPN’

By Yelena Mandenberg Yelena Mandenberg has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on February 4, 2019

A new memo from Facebook denies spying on consumers, despite last week’s discovery of a ‘Facebook Research VPN’ app that’s been sucking up every user’s data for years. A TechCrunch report penned by editor Josh Constine discovered that Facebook had been paying users to download this app, which violates Apple’s terms of service.

According to the report:

Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits.

Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.

Since the company admitted that this app was taking information, a rep for Facebook said they would shut down the iOS version of its research app. Apple confirmed last Wednesday that there was a breach of security because of this app.

An Apple spokesperson said: “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

The Andriod version of this app will continue to run. The app is geared toward users between the ages of 15 and 35, and decrypts all browsing information for collection.

Now Facebook is fighting back against these claims. They released a memo that takes responsibility for encouraging users to download this app, but disagrees with the terms ‘secret’ and ‘spying’, saying that this app doesn’t do anything that most cookies don’t do.

The memo says:

TechCrunch implied we hid the fact that this is by Facebook – we don’t. Participants have to download an app called Facebook Research App to be involved in the stud. They also characterized this as “spying,” which we don’t agree with. People participated in this program with full knowledge that Facebook was sponsoring this research, and were paid for it. They could opt-out at any time. As we built this program, we specifically wanted to make sure we were as transparent as possible about what we were doing, what information we were gathering, and what it was for.

While Facebook claims this app wasn’t secretive, TechCrunch authors argue that this product was never announced, which is something the social media giant usually does when they release a new app or product. Also, Facebook intermediary companies to collect the data, and users weren’t even informed that Facebook was involved until they got to the permissions section of the user agreement, which also prohibits users from discussing the app.

Between various breaches, trouble with fake news accounts, and appearances before the government, Facebook is finding itself in a tough situation.

You can read a full report here.


By Yelena Mandenberg Yelena Mandenberg has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Yelena Mandenberg is the Ideas Editor at Grit Daily with a passion for news of all sorts. Finishing Brooklyn College with a degree in Print Media Journalism as the industry died out, she began working as a freelancer.After spending some time working in the retail industry, Yelena started BK Riot Writing, a marketing company that caters to small and local businesses, creating content that helps them compete. From her South Brooklyn apartment where she lives with her cat & tortoise, Yelena is always seeking something new and interesting to cover.

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