In the latest revelation to raise privacy concerns about Silicon Valley’s tech titans, reports have surfaced that Facebook and Google offered adults and teens gift cards for installing apps that would let the companies collect data on their smartphones.
TechCrunch reported Tuesday that, since 2016, Facebook has been paying users — some as young as 13 years old — up to $20 a month to install an app called Facebook Research. The app could give Facebook access to private messages, photos, videos, emails, web searches and browsing activity, the tech news site reported.
“Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity,” TechCrunch reported.
Apple has banned the Facebook Research app.
Facebook isn’t the only tech company collecting data using such apps. On Wednesday, Google said it will withdraw a similar app called Screenwise Meter.
This is not the first time Facebook has been accused of going to extreme lengths to get user data. In 2013, it bought a company called Onavo and allegedly used the Onavo app to get more information about WhatsApp, a competing messaging platform that Facebook ultimately bought for $19 billion.
The Facebook Research app is similar to the Onavo app banned by Apple last summer.
“To use it this way, and under their own name, is just amazing to me. I don’t understand what they thought they were doing, or how they thought they could get away with this,” Will Strafach, a mobile-security researcher who studied the app for TechCrunch, told NPR.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook said the app “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.” And, the company said, less than 5 percent of participants “in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
Lawmakers are questioning Facebook about the app.
“I have concerns that users were not appropriately informed about the extent of Facebook’s data-gathering and the commercial purposes of this data collection,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users — particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts — has been a source of frustration for me.”
And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote on Twitter: “Wait a minute. Facebook PAID teenagers to install a surveillance device on their phones without telling them it gave Facebook power to spy on them? Some kids as young as 13. Are you serious? ”
In a statement to TechCrunch, Google said its Screenwise Meter app “should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in this app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”
Katie Moussouris of Luta Security says she understands why younger users would agree to give so much access to their private lives.
“Some of these children have grown up with virtually no privacy at all,” she says. “Their photos where shared by their parents, by their families before they could even consent to it. So I think for them, it probably feels like there’s nothing left to hide.”