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TECHNOLOGY

Facebook Just Shut Down a Secret Program That Paid Teenagers to Install Spyware on Their Phones

The company offered up to $20 a month to install a VPN that tracked users’ data.

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BY Isobel Asher Hamilton - 31 Jan 2019

facebook secret program

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

  • Facebook is pulling an iOS research app following a TechCrunch report that revealed it paid people, including teenagers, to allow it to gather data about them.
  • Facebook stood by the app when the news broke, saying it had no plans to take it down. Hours later, it confirmed it was taking the app off Apple devices.
  • Facebook did not immediately confirm whether it would also take the app off Android.

Facebook has shut down an iOS app that installed intrusive data-gathering software on people's phones, just hours after vigorously defending the project.

TechCrunch on Tuesday reported that Facebook had set up an app, named Facebook Research, that paid people up to $20 a month to install a VPN that tracked their data.

Among others, it enlisted 13- to 17-year-olds, who had to get a parental-consent agreement signed through a tick box to take part in the program. Facebook said less than 5% of the participants were teenagers.

Initially, Facebook defended the program, and a spokesman told Business Insider that it had no plans to end Facebook Research as a result of TechCrunch's report.

But about five hours after publishing, TechCrunch's Josh Constine reported that the app had been shut down on iOS.

Facebook confirmed to Business Insider that the program was shutting down on Apple devices but did not immediately answer whether the same would be true for Android.

Facebook has rubbed Apple up the wrong way over intrusive apps before. Apple previously banned Facebook's VPN app Onavo, and the TechCrunch report suggested that much of this new app was lifted directly from Onavo's code. A Facebook spokesman stressed to Business Insider that Facebook Research was not built to replace Onavo.

Responding to Business Insider's request for comment, the spokesman said the app was not as bad as people thought. He said:

"Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing 'secret' about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App.

"It wasn't 'spying' as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear onboarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.

"Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms."

--This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

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