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Like Facebook, Google also got a data collection app past Apple

Updated Jan 30th, 2019 6:26PM EST
Google research app
Image: Valeriya Zankovych

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If you’ve paid any attention at all to tech news today — or, heck, even just glanced briefly at Twitter — you’re likely aware that Facebook is getting hammered at the moment over a pretty creepy-sounding revelation.

The company has been using a Facebook Research app it developed for iOS and Android to pretty much spy on everything a participating user does on their smartphone. 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. Apple responded by yanking some technical permissions for Facebook that have cause some chaos internally at the social networking company, and the whole thing seems to be continuing to escalate.

And now, it seems that Facebook wasn’t alone in doing this. A new report from TechCrunch reveals that Google has apparently snuck an app past Apple too that sounds a lot like the one from Facebook:

Google has been running an app called Screenwise Meter, which bears a strong resemblance to the app distributed by Facebook Research that has now been barred by Apple, TechCrunch has learned. In its app, Google invites users aged 18 and up (or 13 if part of a family group) to download the app by way of a special code and registration process using an Enterprise Certificate. That’s the same type of policy violation that led Apple to shut down Facebook’s similar Research VPN iOS app, which had the knock-on effect of also disabling usage of Facebook’s legitimate employee-only apps — which run on the same Facebook Enterprise Certificate — and making Facebook look very iffy in the process.

The report goes on to explain that the Google app, called Screenwise (but since rebranded as part of the Google Opinion Rewards program), was launched in 2012 and let users earn gift cards in exchange for sideloading the VPN app that will let Google monitor their traffic and data. It was originally open to users as young as age 13, though its rules now specify that the primary user has to be at least 18.

The TechCrunch pieces argues that Google is more straightforward here, compared to Facebook, in explaining how the program works and what data is collected, while also pointing out that it’s still somewhat dicey for this to exist at all. “Putting the not-insignificant issues of privacy aside — in short, many people lured by financial rewards may not fully take in what it means to have a company fully monitoring all your screen-based activity — and the implications of what extent tech businesses are willing to go to to amass more data about users to get an edge on competitors, Google Screenwise Meter for iOS appears to violate Apple’s policy.”

Which is the same thing Facebook is getting skewered for today. This is just one more revelation that will serve to eat away at the battered trust left in Facebook. And about its response to Apple, that’s certainly an interesting dynamic to watch play out and has some serious implications, as hinted at in this internal Facebook memo obtained by Business Insider:

UPDATE: Google has released a statement about this, explaining that the app has now been disabled. It reads:

“The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in this app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.