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Facebook, Google Draw Scrutiny Over Apps That Collected Data From Teens

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 4:11 pm

In the latest revelation to raise privacy concerns about Silicon Valley's tech titans, reports have surfaced that Facebook and Google offered adults and teens gift cards for installing apps that would let the companies collect data on their smartphones.

TechCrunch reported Tuesday that, since 2016, Facebook has been paying users — some as young as 13 years old — up to $20 a month to install an app called Facebook Research. The app could give Facebook access to private messages, photos, videos, emails, web searches and browsing activity, the tech news site reported.

"Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity," TechCrunch reported.

Apple has banned the Facebook Research app.

Facebook isn't the only tech company collecting data using such apps. On Wednesday, Google said it will withdraw a similar app called Screenwise Meter.

This is not the first time Facebook has been accused of going to extreme lengths to get user data. In 2013, it bought a company called Onavo and allegedly used the Onavo app to get more information about WhatsApp, a competing messaging platform that Facebook ultimately bought for $19 billion.

The Facebook Research app is similar to the Onavo app banned by Apple last summer.

"To use it this way, and under their own name, is just amazing to me. I don't understand what they thought they were doing, or how they thought they could get away with this," Will Strafach, a mobile-security researcher who studied the app for TechCrunch, told NPR.

In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook said the app "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." And, the company said, less than 5 percent of participants "in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms."

[Note: Facebook is among NPR's financial sponsors.]

Lawmakers are questioning Facebook about the app.

"I have concerns that users were not appropriately informed about the extent of Facebook's data-gathering and the commercial purposes of this data collection," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "Facebook's apparent lack of full transparency with users — particularly in the context of 'research' efforts — has been a source of frustration for me."

And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote on Twitter: "Wait a minute. Facebook PAID teenagers to install a surveillance device on their phones without telling them it gave Facebook power to spy on them? Some kids as young as 13. Are you serious? "

In a statement to TechCrunch, Google said its Screenwise Meter 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."

Katie Moussouris of Luta Security says she understands why younger users would agree to give so much access to their private lives.

"Some of these children have grown up with virtually no privacy at all," she says. "Their photos where shared by their parents, by their families before they could even consent to it. So I think for them, it probably feels like there's nothing left to hide."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Embarrassments continue for Facebook over its collection of users' data. Both Facebook and Google have been offering cash and gift incentives to users, persuading them to share information about almost everything people do on their phones. At least in this case, unlike some others, Facebook did ask first. But some targeted users were as young as 13, which is awkward. Although, apparently, it's only awkward up to a point for Facebook because the company also posted record profits on Wednesday. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: According to an investigative report by the news site TechCrunch, Facebook has been paying young users up to $20 a month to install a Facebook research app since 2016. It gives Facebook unlimited access to their phones. Katie Moussouris is the founder and CEO of Luta, a cybersecurity company. She says Facebook's motivation is that it's losing ground among young people.

KATIE MOUSSOURIS: If teenagers are sharing a lot of memes, Facebook would then say, OK. You know what? We should build something into the platform that lets you share memes a lot easier. And then maybe we can attract those users back.

GARSD: This is not the first time Facebook is accused of going to extreme lengths to get user data. Back in 2013, Facebook bought a company called Onavo and allegedly used the Onavo app to get more information about a competitor, the messaging platform WhatsApp, which Facebook ultimately bought. The term corporate espionage was thrown around. And Apple was not happy that all this was happening on its app store. Here's Apple CEO Tim Cook on MSNBC indirectly chastising Facebook's disregard for privacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM COOK: We could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer. But you are not our product.

GARSD: Apple forced Facebook to remove Onavo from the app store, but Facebook came right back under a different guise. Will Strafach is a mobile security researcher. He studied the app for TechCrunch's recent expose.

WILL STRAFACH: To use it this way and under their own name is just amazing to me because I don't understand what they thought they were doing or how they thought they could get away with this.

GARSD: Apple has banned Facebook's research app. And it's clearly not happy about what happened yet again. It was widely reported yesterday that Apple dropped some of Facebook's in-house apps - apps that Facebook employees use to look up bus schedules and lunch menus. Facebook is not the only tech company to be caught in this way. Yesterday, Google pulled the app Screenwise Meter, which basically collects information on how people use the Internet. And while a lot of users might find this shocking, Katie Moussouris from Luta Security is not surprised. What she does wonder about is a generation that would give any amount of access to their private lives. She gets why.

MOUSSOURIS: Some of these children have grown up with virtually no privacy at all. Their photos were shared by their parents, by their families before they could ever consent to it. So I think for them, it feels - it probably feels like there's nothing left to hide.

GARSD: You want big tech to change its behavior. Time and again, it hasn't. Moussouris says change will come from users figuring out when enough is enough. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: And in the interest of full disclosure, we note that Facebook is an NPR underwriter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.