Google disables iPhone app that studied users' digital habits

A portrait of Facebook found Mark Zuckerberg is seen on an iPhone in this

When Facebook's Onavo Protect VPN was forced off the App Store by Apple's new requirement that it needed to have a privacy policy, the social media platform still wanted to collect massive amounts of sensitive data.

As unearthed by TechCrunch, the research program dubbed "Project Atlas" sought users who would be willing to install an app that gave Facebook unfettered access to their iOS or Android phones for $20 a month, plus referral fees.

A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that it has no plans to end Facebook Research as a result of the report.

Apple has yet to publicly offer a comment on the report and say whether it will impose any meaningful sanctions on Facebook. The app requires "participants" to install Root Certificate, which grants Facebook full rights to practically every little piece of information you have on your phone, including prized access to usage data about third party apps.

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Because Facebook operates free of charge to its users, it's tough to put an exact price on all of the data that it has on each one of us. It's not clear if Facebook will be allowed back into the program with new certificates, and whether Apple will change its mind.

TechCrunch reported separately Wednesday that Google was using the same privileged access to Apple's mobile operating system for a market-research app, Screenwise Meter. It said that less than 5% of those who participated in the research were teens who signed parental consent forms. After these revelations were published in March 2018, Apple updated their policies in June to prohibit this, informing Facebook in August the app must be removed from the App Store.

The incident, regardless of Facebook's strongly-worded response, will undoubtedly further tarnish the social media company's public image. The program, which began in 2016, is still running on Android.

It claims the app was installed with testing services normally used for software still in development, meaning it was able to bypass Apple's App Store for installation.

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Facebook had been collecting this data through its Onavo Protect VPN service, which it acquired in 2013 for $100 million - $200 million. As noted by Strafach, Facebook's Research app appears to be a "poorly re-branded build of the banned Onavo app". "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".

Apple has long sought to distinguish itself from the rest of the tech pack in its approach to privacy, and Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has particularly taken a harsh view of Facebook. This program is intended for companies to install internal apps and beta versions on employee devices via special iOS certificates.

"We don't share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time", the spokesperson added.

With a growing number of youngsters leaving Facebook in favor of SnapChat, YouTube and others, the social network run by Mark Zuckerberg has clear interest in getting key information about how those competitors are doing.

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