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Facebook pays teenagers $20 a month to monitor what they do online

In exchange for a $20 gift card, volunteers between 13 and 35 gave Facebook root access to their phone.

by David Gilbert
30 January 2019, 8:34pm

Getty Images

This piece has been updated to include a response from Apple.

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.

Facebook bought access to teenagers’ and young adults' data by paying them to install an app that reveals everything they do online, TechCrunch reported on Tuesday.

The company paid up to $20 a month for installation of the Facebook Research App, a virtual private network that gives the social media giant unfettered access across mobile and online.

In exchange for a $20 gift card each month, volunteers aged between 13 and 35 provide Facebook root access to their phone.

Facebook did not directly promote the app itself but rather employed intermediaries to get people to sign up, only revealing its involvement after the process had begun.

The social media company previously collected similar data through its Onavo VPN app, which it acquired in 2013. That app allowed Facebook to gain valuable insights into its own business, as well as identifying popular competitor services to clone.

That app was shut down last summer after Apple complained it violated its privacy policies.

Following TechCrunch’s report, Facebook confirmed to The Verge that it will shut down the iPhone version of the new Research app but continue to offer the Android version.

In a statement to VICE News, Apple said it took the first step of removing the research app by revoking Facebook’s ability to distribute the app. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization,” an Apple spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “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.”

Facebook, which has faced continuous and ongoing criticism over its inability to protect people’s privacy, said the app was simply standard industry practice.

“Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we’ve provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don’t share this information with others, and people can stop participating at any time,” the company said in a statement.

READ: We posed as 100 senators to run ads on Facebook. Facebook approved all of them.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to a question about whether they conducted similar research. Twitter said it did not conduct such programs.

Facebook said that less than 5 percent of the people who had signed up for the app were teenagers and that all those who did had signed parental consent forms.

However, before the iOS app was removed, a BBC journalist showed just how easy it was to sign up for this app:

“These revelations should sound the alarm for privacy-conscious consumers that in the wrong hands VPN technology is just as capable of compromising your personal data as securing it,” Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, told VICE News in an email.

This is the second time this month that Facebook has been found taking advantage of young people. A recent report revealed the company knowingly duped game-playing children and their parents out of thousands of dollars.

Unsealed court documents showed that Facebook was aware of developers enticing children into spending money on games without parental approval, referring to the practice as “Friendly Fraud.”

Cover Image: Facebook logo is seen on an android mobile phone. (Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)