Facebook paid users aged between 13 and 35 a monthly fee to install an app which gave it access to all data sent or received by their phone over the Internet. In response, Apple has revoked Facebook’s ability to publish certain types of apps, in a move that could have far-reaching implications for both companies.
The app called Facebook Research was designed to install a virtual private network (VPN) on to a user’s phone to route all data through Facebook servers. This allowed Facebook to collect intimate Internet data of the phone user which it is believed they were using to monitor trends amongst young people.
This is not the first time Facebook has been in hot water with Apple over its apps. A few years ago, Apple closed down a similar VPN app called Onavo which was in breach of the iOS App Store privacy rules. Facebook Research avoided the iOS App Store privacy rules by distributing through Apple’s enterprise programme designed for companies to develop internal-only apps.
Facebook had already decided to shut down Facebook Research, whilst upholding that it had not been in breach, after TechCrunchfirst broke the story. However, Apple made the first leading move by withdrawing the App from its Apple Store. A step like this could serve to exacerbate tensions between the two tech giants.
The Daring Fireball blogger, John Gruber, believes this incident “constitutes Facebook declaring war on Apple’s iOS privacy protections” and predicted that Facebook may even decide to “pull their apps from the App Store” in retaliation. Gruber went on to argue that, “Facebook is betting that their apps are too popular, that they can do what they want and Apple has to sit back and take it”.
Facebook condemned reporting on Facebook Research, claiming that essential information about the app was not being taken into consideration. In a statement, Facebook said that “It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5% of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
However, according to the app developer Will Strafach, who commented on his Twitter page, that it is not possible to fully consent to the data usage by the app even though there is an option to give permission to do so. Strafach contended that users would not know to what extent information is taken about them through their phones; hence he was of the thought that “users could not reasonably consent without this knowledge”.