Facebook has been targeting teenagers and young adults with their VPN app “Research,” for 13- to 35-year-olds, that’s part of their overall “Project Atlas,” a far-reaching effort to gain insight into everyday lives and to detect potential emerging Facebook competitors.
If users install the app on their phone, and agree to the extra-complicated terms of service, they get $20 (in gift cards), and additional $20 payments for referring friends. Meanwhile, Facebook gets almost every single piece of sensitive data transmitted through their phones – including private messages, photos, web browsing activity and more. Facebook’s level of access to personal data and activity would make intelligence agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency envious.
The imbalance of power here is astounding. But to cash-strapped teens who don’t understand just how much they’re giving away (and let’s face it – no one could understand the legaleze in these intentionally long, complex user agreements) – it seems like easy money.
A rebrand of a banned app
The app lets Facebook suck in all the users’ phone and web activity, much like another app called Onavo that Apple banned last June. Research is basically a rebranded version of Onavo, meaning Facebook is still flagrantly flaunting the rules and knowingly undermining their relationship with Apple.
Why is Facebook doing this? Simple: so they can figure out which competitors to kill, which to buy, and what new features to develop next. It’s extremely profitable for Facebook to glean info such as Amazon purchase history – which they actually did ask users to screencap for them – and create an accurate portrait of purchasing habits and other user trends, so they can foresee what their next steps should be in the big picture.
They knew to buy WhatsApp, for example, because through Onavo’s tracking they discovered that there were twice as many conversations for that age group happening on WhatsApp compared with Facebook Messenger. Not only did they know to buy it, they had an advantage in knowing how much it was truly worth and what they should pay for WhatsApp.
Facebook is going about all this with a disturbing level of surveillance that’s normally reserved for corporate security or government agencies.
The Research app initially gives no clue that it’s connected to Facebook; that’s also intentionally misleading, because Facebook is well aware that teenagers are leaving their platform in droves, so if they can convince teens to download a seemingly unrelated app, they still get all that valuable data.
They also used tools provided by Apple for app-testing purposes, not for mass surveillance purposes, violating not just users’ trust, but also their technology partners and providers’ trust.
There’s no way to give truly informed consent
Facebook always positions themselves as harmless or, at worst, incompetent, but after the last two years of their repeated abuses we know that’s simply not the case. They’re saying, “You’ve got nothing to hide, so download this app, help us improve our service, and get paid for it.” But you’re giving up your privacy for an insultingly low compensation.
And, there’s a risk should Facebook’s internal security practices be as bad as its privacy practices that your highly personal information could fall into the wrong hands.
Facebook will stop at nothing to leverage their monopoly to secure their market position.
What can you do? Don’t give in! Get Facebook and affiliated apps off your phone, petition for privacy to be upheld in all levels of government, and push for lawmakers to finally hold Facebook accountable.