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Facebook just shut down the iPhone version of the most despicable spying program it ever created

Published Jan 30th, 2019 6:50AM EST
Facebook Research App
Image: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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Facebook keeps promising it’ll do better to serve its customers, but more and more reports reveal nasty surprises about the way it conducts its business. Because Facebook and all its other products are free to use online services, they need to make money off of ads, so Facebook has to collect plenty of data from consumers. It’s the same thing Google does, and it’s a compromise that works for many people. But it’s one thing to collect browsing data, and quite another to spy on people via research apps that pay users, including minors, a low monthly fee in exchange to everything that happens on a mobile device.

A scathing report from TechCrunch explains in great detail how Facebook devised a Facebook Research app for iPhone and Android that was designed to spy on everything a user did on a smartphone. The app bypassed the App Store, seemingly breaking some of Apple’s rules regarding sideloading apps on iOS devices, and targeted minors as well as young adults.

For $20 a month, any person installing Facebook Research, which seems to be a continuation of the Onavo Protect VPN app that Apple banned in June, would automatically share data from their devices with the company:

By installing the software, you’re giving our client permission to collect data from your phone that will help them understand how you browse the internet, and how you use the features in the apps you’ve installed . . . This means you’re letting our client collect information such as which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them, data about your activities and content within those apps, as well as how other people interact with you or your content within those apps. You are also letting our client collect information about your internet browsing activity (including the websites you visit and data that is exchanged between your device and those websites) and your use of other online services. There are some instances when our client will collect this information even where the app uses encryption, or from within secure browser sessions.

Facebook said in a comment to TechCrunch that there was nothing secret about the program and that it wasn’t “spying” on people:

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.

However, the report explains that the company tried to hide the fact that it’s a Facebook app, at least until the user or their parents signed up for it. Also, Facebook bypassed Apple’s iOS beta testing app in favor of other services, to avoid any scrutiny from Apple. Also, while Facebook says that less than 5% of people were teens, it’s still a low point for the company. Not to mention that, no matter what Facebook and any other company that collects your data, you’re never really informed about what goes on with your device.

Some seven hours after the report was first published, Facebook shut down the iOS Research app. If you’re still worried about the presence of the app on iPhone, you should go to Settings, General, Profile and remove it. Also, delete the app from your device.

The Android version of Facebook’s creepy Research app is still available so your best bet would be removing it from your device and cutting ties with it forever. Also, make sure you read in full the report at this link, and check out Will Strafach’s Twitter, the security researcher who helped TechCrunch investigate the Research app.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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