Facebook Pays Users To Install Spyware VPN App

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A new report highlights another shady Facebook policy that was paying people to install an app called the Facebook Research VPN. Facebook allegedly paid users to install the VPN, which allowed the company to collect all the user’s phone and web activity at all times.

Facebook had a similar app called Onavo Protect that was banned by Apple last summer. The new Facebook Research VPN app is said to potentially violate Apple privacy policy, and was available for Android devices as well.

Facebook admitted to TechCrunch that it was running the research program and had since 2016. The social network was paying users from 13 to 35 years old up to $20 monthly, plus referral fees, to install the iOS or Android Facebook Research app and give up all mobile privacy. The app went so far as to ask users to take screenshots of their Amazon order history page.

Reports indicate that the program, allegedly called “Project Atlas” in some documentation, was run via beta test services Applause, BetaBound, and uTest to help hide Facebook’s involvement.

Facebook relies on the three software testing platforms to enable sideloading of the Research app, effectively bypassing Apple’s App Store and its stringent guidelines. Facebook does not disseminate Research through Apple’s TestFlight, presumably because the system involves an app review process and 10,000 user limit.

Since the story broke about the app, Facebook has stated that it will close the iOS version but the app will continue to be available on Android devices.

Facebook said in a statement,

“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 made no comment thus far on if Facebook violated its privacy policy, however, speculation suggests that it might have been told by Apple privately to remove the Facebook Research app, just as it was asked privately to remove Onavo Protect last year.

The Facebook research App granted the social network “nearly limitless access to a user’s device” including location information, chat history, emails, photos and videos sent, and more according to Guardian Mobile Firewall’s Will Strafach.