Facebook has been caught paying teens and young adults for unfettered access to the private data on their phones, using a VPN app.
The reports overnight, first broken by TechCrunch, are that "desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a 'Facebook Research' VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity."
Last year in March, it was reported that Facebook pushed its Onavo Protect VPN app to the iOS users. While VPNs are usually used as an extra privacy layer, this tool tracked the users’ activity and collected their data. Later, Apple kicked off the app from App Store as it was violating the company’s terms and conditions.
According to the new report, Facebook has been paying users to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that performs its job similar to Onavo Protect. The company pays the users of ages 13 to 35 up to $20 to install the app.
This “research” tool grants the company full access to smartphone and web activity. To protect itself from the wrath of Apple’s policies, Facebook has been using third-party beta testing services named uTest, Applause, and BetaBound.
These beta services run ads on Snapchat and Instagram for a “paid social media research study.”
Facebook has acknowledged this data collection program, and said it is axing the iOS version of the app. However, the company said that there's nothing "secret" about the program:
"Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing 'secret' about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It 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. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms."
The news follow recent reports that Facebook plans to unify the the underlying technical infrastructure of Messenger and WhatsUp into the Facebook app.
Facebook has built a business where it supplies convenience, self-promotion and fun in return for data exploitation. In essence, you pay for all the fun with the understanding that you are being farmed around the world's largest bloc of advertisers, who spend increasing percentages of their budgets selling something specifically designed to appeal to you.
If this is OK for you, then there is nothing else to say. But if your ethics do not allow you to accept it, complaining over the web forums and the social media platforms is not enough.