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Facebook Research: rule-breaking spy program targets teens

Today, yet another scary story about Facebook’s practices – the company has been conducting invasive market research, targeting teens with Instagram ads offering $20 a month to take part in a “social media study”.

Users aged 13 and above have been taking part in a project that essentially spies on their usage patterns 24/7. The “Facebook Research” app includes a VPN (virtual private network) and allows access to much more data than is supposed to be allowed on iOS. That includes app usage, messages, emails, browsing history, and even constant location data.

A similar Facebook-led data harvesting project, Onavo Protect, was banned from the App Store last year for flouting Apple’s rules – so this scheme cleverly evades the App Store, using Facebook’s developer credentials to allow users to “side-load” apps that grant root access to pretty much everything on the device. Again, this is entirely at odds with Apple’s developer rules.

For its part, Facebook contests the term “spying” as it says users agreed to the surveillance, and it always sought parental consent in the case of minors – who in fact, only made up around 5% of the total study group.

Even so, though Facebook claims the project was not a secret, it was certainly shady. The company took liberties to exclude its name from its communications and completely ignored Apple’s strict developer rules, which are meant to protect against this kind of device abuse.

In the wake of this story breaking, Facebook has said it will shut down the iOS version of its research app, but it remains to be seen whether it will make changes for Android users too. You can find out much more about the whole saga over at TechCrunch, and it’s a very interesting read!