Facebook has been paying teenagers around $20 a month to use a VPN app called “Facebook Research” that allowed the company full access to all of their phone and web activity. The app appears to be a reincarnation of Onavo Protect, a Facebook app that was pulled last year due to Apple’s privacy objections.
As “Facebook Research” seems to have the same features as Onavo, this would appear to be in violation of Apple’s privacy policies as well. Facebook has admitted to TechCrunch that the app exists, and that its purpose was to gain insight on usage habits. According to TechCrunch, the program has been in distribution since 2016, and has been referred to as “Project Atlas” starting in mid-2018.
Instead of downloading the app through the App Store or via Apple’s own TestFlight beta testing program, users were getting it through three different beta testing services: BetaBound, uTest and Applause.
Those three services specifically ran ads on Instagram and Snapchat targeting a demographic of those ages 13-35, saying that it was a “paid social media research study.” When signing up for the app, minors are prompted to ask parental permission via a form. One of the forms reads: “There are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps.”