Facebook Paid Teens for Total Surveillance of Their Phones; Some Say That’s a Good Thing
01.30.2019

An investigation by TechCrunch has revealed a secretive Facebook program that recruited teens and young adults to give the social media giant near-total access to data on their mobile devices, including the ability to monitor encrypted communications. The findings seem to reaffirm widespread worries about data and privacy among the crypto faithful, could deepen a rift between Facebook and Apple, and will certainly worsen the public impression of Facebook as malicious and unethical.

But this particular Facebook scheme, known as Project Atlas or Facebook Research, is distinct from prior Facebook scandals in one crucial way: Participants were paid up to $20 per month for their data. That’s actually quite in line with visions of the future laid out by blockchain projects including Repay.me and Streamr. Prominent blockchain investor Anthony Pompliano this morning tweeted that “rather than vilify [Facebook] for doing this, we should DEMAND every company do it.”

Leaving aside for the moment the broader question of data-gathering ethics, it appears Facebook engaged in several layers of chicanery to implement its Research program. Most glaringly, Facebook asked iPhone users to side-load the data-monitoring app using Apple’s Enterprise Certification program, intended to distribute beta programs to company employees.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has skirted Apple’s efforts to protect iPhone users’ privacy. It previously drove installations of an app called Onavo that gave Facebook similar monitoring access. Apple banned Onavo from the App Store in June of last year, and one analyst told TechCrunch that “the code in [the Facebook Research] iOS app strongly indicates that it is simply a poorly re-branded build of the banned Onavo app.”

The Research app was removed from the iOS App Store swiftly after the report dropped yesterday, and Cheddar reporter Alex Heath announced this morning that Apple had revoked Facebook’s Enterprise Developer certification. That won’t prevent Facebook from offering iOS apps, but will prevent it from offering test apps to employees without Apple review. Heath also reported that Facebook’s iOS betas currently in testing are now broken. TechCrunch speculates that Apple could also take the more drastic step of revoking Facebook’s access to the Enterprise Certification program entirely.

Also extremely shady is Facebook’s targeting of teenagers for the program, through ads on Instagram and Snapchat. Teens joining Facebook Research had to submit parental permission through an online form, and the program also sought users as old as 35; Facebook claimed to TechCrunch that only 5% of participants were teens. But that small sliver appears to be extremely valuable to Facebook, which likely used insights from the earlier Onavo program to track the popularity of apps like WhatsApp so it could either buy them or copy popular features.

Finally, the level of access Facebook gained through the Research app is staggering. Installation requires granting the Research app nearly unlimited access to phone functions, and an analyst retained by TechCrunch said it could collect “private messages in social media apps, chats from instant messaging apps—including photos/videos … emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information.” According to TechCrunch, “the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect.”

Setting aside those details, we can return to the deeper question: Is it objectionable for Facebook to pay users for complete data transparency? One detail that’s not clear is exactly where participants were located, and $20 is a significant amount of money in many parts of the world, and even for many American teenagers. If you view privacy as a commodity, it should be any individual’s right to sell it. But Facebook illustrates what may be a general tendency for large organizations to abuse their relationships with users, which has led economist Glen Weyl to reject the model of pay-for-data and to push for more effectively empowering users collectively.

Either way, Wall Street doesn’t appear concerned about Facebook’s latest bad behavior, its potential fallout, or any deeper ethical concerns: Facebook stock was trading up significantly at the market open.