Google disables iPhone app that studied users' digital habits

Kelley Robertson
January 31, 2019

This countermand means Facebook's internal iOS apps, including those used by employees for food and transportation, have been blocked.

Under Facebook's "Project Atlas" research program, the company offered Facebook users $20 a month to install an app that gave the social network complete access to what they were doing on their iPhone and Android phones.

As app users are using the Enterprise Certificate-powered app unsupervised, Facebook may be violating Apple policy.

Eagle-eyed researchers spotted that the Facebook Research app bore striking similarities with the controversial Onavo Protect App, which Apple banned from the App Store in August previous year. Facebook is able to access this data after users install a "Facebook Research" VPN app.

Apple also revoked the app from its developer program, cutting off Facebook's ability to further distribute the VPN.

Some lawmakers sharply rebuked Facebook on Wednesday in response to the reports about its data-tracking app. "Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible", Democratic Sen.

Facebook said it shut down the app after the report, but denies it was misleading.

The question now is, will Apple cut off Google's access to its developer system the same way it did with Facebook?

Facebook has been criticized for operating a secretive market research project which paid teenage users in return for unfettered access to their personal data. Users are only informed that the app is called "Facebook Research" until just before they install the program.

"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", the Facebook statement said.

Facebook said fewer than 5 percent of the participants in the program were teens and that all of those teens had signed parental consent forms. In my opinion, this absence of informed consent makes the Facebook Research app especially troubling.

The Research app was distributed to its users through Apple's Developer Enterprise Program.

Anyone who digs into the FAQ would see that the research app tracks app and internet usage, but the marketing firms didn't mention Facebook's involvement. Now, Apple is hitting back at the company for abusing their policies and making sure their stance on the discovery is known. This type of data gathering can not be done using an App Store app.

The internal versions of Facebook apps used by employees carry bits of code for updates or new features that aren't available to the public. It's permission-based, and Facebook has apparently being paying the users who participate, but this has nevertheless generated yet another serious black eye for Facebook, which bypassed Apple's App Store and seemingly broke some of Apple's rules to do this. Information is also collected on how other people interact with users and their content within those apps, according to the disclosure.

The standoff between Apple and Facebook erupted hours before the social-networking giant reported record quarterly revenues from the fourth quarter of 2018 that beat analysts' expectations.

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