Facebook Paying Teens $20/Month to Install Data Harvesting VPN App on iPhones

Apple in August 2018 forced Facebook to remove its Onavo VPN app from the App Store, because Facebook was using it to track user activity and data across multiple apps, something that violate's Apple's ‌App Store‌ policies.

As it turns out, Facebook has found an underhanded way to skirt Apple's rules and get people to continue installing its VPN -- paying them.

facebookresearchapp
TechCrunch this afternoon exposed Facebook's "Project Atlas" program, in which Facebook paid people -- adults and teenagers -- to install a "Facebook Research" VPN that is similar to the Onavo VPN app.

As of 2016, Facebook has been secretly offering people aged 13 to 35 up to $20 per month along with referral fees to sideload the Facebook Research app using an enterprise certificate on iPhone. Enterprise certificates like this are designed to allow companies to distribute internal corporate apps and give full root access to a device.

To hide its involvement, Facebook has been using beta testing services like Applause, BetaBound and uTest to recruit participants to install Facebook Research.

By getting people to sideload an app this way through an enterprise certificate, Facebook has access to data that includes private messages in social media apps, chats from instant messaging apps (including photos and videos), emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and ongoing location information. It's not clear if Facebook is accessing this data, but it could, according to security researcher Will Strafach, who TechCrunch consulted for this piece.

"The fairly technical sounding 'install our Root Certificate' step is appalling," Strafach tells us. "This hands Facebook continuous access to the most sensitive data about you, and most users are going to be unable to reasonably consent to this regardless of any agreement they sign, because there is no good way to articulate just how much power is handed to Facebook when you do this."

The terms of service for the Facebook Research app suggest Facebook was collecting information about the smartphone apps on a participant's phone and how and when those apps are used. Facebook also said it would collect data about activities and content within the apps, and information about internet browsing history. There's even a line suggesting Facebook collects data even when an app uses encryption or from within a secure browser session.

Facebook confirmed the program in a statement provided to TechCrunch and reportedly said that the Facebook Research app was "in line with Apple's Enterprise Certificate program," though that does not seem to be the case based on Apple's Enterprise Certificate policy.

"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."

Apple has been made aware of the issue, but declined to provide a comment to TechCrunch. It's not clear how the Cupertino company will handle the situation, but as TechCrunch points out, Apple CEO Tim Cook has been highly critical of Facebook and its privacy violations. Apple could potentially block the Facebook Research app or revoke Facebook's permission to distribute internal apps entirely.

Full details on Facebook's spying app can be found in TechCrunch's exposé.

Top Rated Comments

PotatoLeekSoup Avatar
39 months ago
Facebook is garbage.
Score: 42 Votes (Like | Disagree)
brendu Avatar
39 months ago
What moron sells all their personal data for at most $20/month. Good lord people are dumb.
Score: 35 Votes (Like | Disagree)
HiVolt Avatar
39 months ago
Wow, when will people realize how truly evil Facebook really is.

Apple should make an example of them and ban their app, at least temporarily.
Score: 34 Votes (Like | Disagree)
AngerDanger Avatar
39 months ago
Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark. Do you even know what the "P" in VPN stands for? Private. You've made a data-harvesting virtual private network. That doesn't compute!

Score: 27 Votes (Like | Disagree)
farewelwilliams Avatar
39 months ago
facebook should be paying me $20/month to use Facebook at all for the amount of $$$ they made off of my data.
Score: 24 Votes (Like | Disagree)
cashville2400 Avatar
39 months ago
I am sick of these companies and all this garbage they are pulling! Especially, Facebook.
Score: 22 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Popular Stories

Upcoming Products 2022 Feature

Gurman: Apple Preparing 'Widest Array of New Hardware Products in Its History' for Fall

Sunday January 23, 2022 10:32 am PST by
Apple is working on a number of new products that are set to launch this fall, and Bloomberg's Mark Gurman says that it will be "the widest array" of new devices that Apple has introduced in its history. In his latest "Power On" newsletter, Gurman explains that Apple is working on four new flagship iPhones (iPhone 14, iPhone 14 Max, iPhone 14 Pro, and iPhone 14 Pro Max), an updated low-end Ma...
macbook pro 14 16 2021

Three Months After Launch, Apple Still Struggling to Meet Demand for Redesigned 14-Inch and 16-Inch MacBook Pro

Monday January 24, 2022 7:12 am PST by
Three months after their launch, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros continue to experience high demand and seemingly short supply, with shipping dates for both models stretching into multiple weeks in several of Apple's key markets. In the United States, the baseline 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chip is estimated to ship in three to four weeks, promising an arrival by at least...
General Dropbox Feature

macOS 12.3 Will Include Cloud Storage Changes Affecting Dropbox and OneDrive

Tuesday January 25, 2022 3:31 pm PST by
Dropbox today announced that users who update to macOS 12.3 once that software version becomes available may temporarily encounter issues with opening online-only files in some third-party apps on their Mac. In a support document and an email to customers, Dropbox said it is actively working on full support for online-only files on macOS 12.3 and will begin rolling out an updated version of...
Questionable Design Decisions

Apple's Most Questionable Design Decisions in Recent Memory

Sunday January 23, 2022 2:59 am PST by
Apple has always emphasized the depth of thought that goes into the design of its products. In the foreword to Designed by Apple in California, a photo book released by the company in 2016, Jony Ive explains how Apple strives "to define objects that appear effortless" and "so simple, coherent and inevitable that there could be no rational alternative." But every once in a while even Apple...
Apple Watch Red Yellow Green Feature 1

Apple Launches Black Unity Braided Solo Loop With 'Unity Lights' Watch Face

Wednesday January 26, 2022 6:05 am PST by
Apple today announced the Black Unity Braided Solo Loop for the Apple Watch, as well as a new downloadable watch face, to celebrate Black History Month. Following the launch of the limited edition Black Unity Apple Watch Series 6 and Sport Band in 2021, Apple today launched the Black Unity Braided Solo Loop as part of its celebrations for Black History Month this year.Apple is launching a...
att gigabit internet

AT&T Bringing $180/Month 5-Gigabit Internet to 70 Cities

Monday January 24, 2022 9:20 am PST by
AT&T today announced the launch of upgraded AT&T Fiber plans, which support speeds of up to 5 Gigabits for some customers. There are two separate plans, one "2 GIG" plan and one "5 GIG" plan, available to new and existing AT&T Fiber subscribers. According to AT&T, the new plans are available to nearly 5.2 million customers across 70 metro areas including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, San...
intel vs m1 max chip purple

Benchmarks Confirm Intel's Latest Core i9 Chip Outperforms Apple's M1 Max With Several Caveats

Wednesday January 26, 2022 8:56 am PST by
Benchmark results have started to surface for MSI's new GE76 Raider, one of the first laptops to be powered by Intel's new 12th-generation Core i9 processor. Intel previously said that its new high-end Core i9 processor is faster than Apple's M1 Max chip in the 16-inch MacBook Pro and, as noted by Macworld, early Geekbench 5 results do appear to confirm this claim, but there are several...
ios 15

Apple Releases iOS 15.3 and iPadOS 15.3 With Fix for Safari Bug That Leaks Browsing Activity

Wednesday January 26, 2022 10:00 am PST by
Apple today released iOS 15.3 and iPadOS 15.3, the third major updates to the iOS and iPadOS 15 operating systems that were released in September 2021. iOS and iPadOS 15.3 come almost two weeks after the release of iOS and iPadOS 15.2.1, minor bug fix updates. The iOS 15.3 and iPadOS 15.3 updates can be downloaded for free and the software is available on all eligible devices over-the-air in ...