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
27 months ago
Facebook is garbage.
Score: 42 Votes (Like | Disagree)
brendu Avatar
27 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
27 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
27 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
27 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
27 months ago
I am sick of these companies and all this garbage they are pulling! Especially, Facebook.
Score: 22 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

jon prosser imac 2021colors

Prosser: 2021 iMac to Come in Five Colors, Apple Silicon Mac Pro to Resemble 'Stacked' Mac Minis

Wednesday February 24, 2021 7:26 am PST by
Hit-and-miss leaker Jon Prosser has today alleged that the upcoming 2021 iMac models will offer five color options, mirroring the colors of the fourth-generation iPad Air, and revealed a number of additional details about the Mac Pro with Apple Silicon. In a new video on YouTube channel FrontPageTech, Prosser explained that the redesigned iMacs will come featuring options for Silver, Space ...
2021 mbp sd slot feature2

Kuo: New MacBook Pro Models With HDMI Port and SD Card Reader to Launch Later This Year

Monday February 22, 2021 8:52 pm PST by
Apple plans to release two new MacBook Pro models equipped with an HDMI port and SD card reader in the second half of 2021, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who outlined his expectations in a research note obtained by MacRumors. The return of an SD card reader was first reported by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman last month. "We predict that Apple's two new MacBook Pro models in 2H21 will have...
m1 mac mini

M1 Mac Users Report Excessive SSD Wear

Tuesday February 23, 2021 7:07 am PST by
Over the past week, some M1 Mac users have been reporting alarming SSD health readings, suggesting that these devices are writing extraordinary amounts of data to their drives (via iMore). Across Twitter and the MacRumors forums, users are reporting that M1 Macs are experiencing extremely high drive writes over a short space of time. In what appear to be the most severe cases, M1 Macs are sai...
iphone 12 pro display video

BOE Rumored to Supply iPhone 13 Display Panels After iPhone 12 Failures

Monday February 22, 2021 9:54 am PST by
Display manufacturer BOE will be one of the main suppliers of OLED panels for iPhone 13 models, according to a new report today from Taiwan's Economic Daily News. BOE is said to be working with touch panel manufacturer General Interface Solution (GIS), part of the Hon Hai Group to develop OLED panels. Multiple iPhone 12 rumors suggested that BOE would supply some panels for the devices,...
flat mbp 14 inch feature yellow

Redesigned 14-Inch MacBook Pro Expected to Feature Brighter Mini-LED Display With Slimmer Bezels and More

Thursday February 25, 2021 7:48 am PST by
Apple plans to unveil new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with Mini-LED-backlit displays in the second half of this year, according to industry sources cited by Taiwanese supply chain publication DigiTimes. The report claims that Radiant Opto-Electronics will be the exclusive supplier of the Mini-LED backlight units, while Quanta Computer is said to be tasked with final assembly of the...
anker magsafe powercore battery pack

Anker Releases MagSafe-Compatible Battery Pack for iPhone 12 Lineup

Tuesday February 23, 2021 7:49 am PST by
Following rumors that Apple is working on a MagSafe battery pack for iPhone 12 models, popular accessory maker Anker has beaten Apple to the punch with the release of its PowerCore Magnetic 5K Wireless Power Bank. First previewed at CES 2021, the PowerCore battery pack magnetically attaches to the back of any iPhone 12 model and provides 5W of wireless charging. With a 5,000 mAh capacity,...
iPad Pro Mini LED

New iPad Pro and MacBook Models With Mini-LED Displays Again Rumored to Launch This Year

Monday February 22, 2021 9:32 pm PST by
Taiwanese company Ennostar will begin production of Mini-LED backlight units for an upcoming 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the late first quarter or second quarter of this year, according to industry sources cited by DigiTimes. Ennostar is a holding company that was jointly established in January 2021 by LED-related manufacturers Epistar and Lextar Electronics. Apple is expected to unveil the new ...
First Look Big Sur Feature2

Apple Releases macOS Big Sur 11.2.2 to Prevent MacBooks From Being Damaged by Third-Party Non-Compliant Docks

Thursday February 25, 2021 10:07 am PST by
Apple today released macOS Big Sur 11.2.2, the fourth update to the macOS Big Sur operating system that launched in November. macOS Big Sur 11.2.2 comes two weeks after the release of macOS Big Sur 11.2.1, a bug fix update. The new ‌‌‌‌macOS Big Sur‌‌‌ 11.2.2‌ update can be downloaded for free on all eligible Macs using the Software Update section of System Preferences....
steam apple logo

Valve Ordered to Give Apple Information on 436 Steam Games As Part of Epic Games Legal Case

Thursday February 25, 2021 1:50 am PST by
Valve, the makers behind popular game distribution platform Steam, will be forced to hand over aggregate historical sales, price, and other information on 436 games hosted on the store to Apple, as part of the Apple vs. Epic Games antitrust case. As reported in a paywalled report by Law360, during a virtual discovery hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas S. Hixson ordered that...
scott forstall original iphone

Epic Games 'Attempting to Locate' Former iOS Chief Scott Forstall to Testify in Ongoing Legal Battle with Apple

Tuesday February 23, 2021 4:22 am PST by
As part of its ongoing legal battle, Epic Games is now seeking testimony from Apple's former iOS software chief, Scott Forstall. Forstall left Apple in 2013, in what was widely reported at the time to have been a forced exit, largely because of the botched early launch of Apple Maps. Since then, Forstall has kept a very low profile and has only made a few media appearances in the past few...