2018 was a year of almost constant scandal for Facebook. The world's most untrusted tech company has had many controversies to deal with. Cambridge Analytica was found to have purchased user data from Facebook and used it to influence elections. Perhaps the most alarming revelation was Facebook scraping data from unsuspecting Android users and handing the information to advertisers.
Over 87 million users had their data accessed by third-parties and Facebook rightly faced criticism. According to a report from TechCrunch, the social network also paid users, including youngsters, per month to be given complete access to their device data.
Facebook paid people aged between 13 and 35 up to $20 per month to mine their smartphones. This happened through the “Facebook Research” VPN across Android and iOS. This app could be downloaded through beta services and wouldn't have been available on the App Store or Google Play.
This disturbing activity has been operating under the Project Atlas guise. Through the app, users gave Facebook “nearly limitless” access to their devices. The company could access messages, photos, videos, social media apps, location information, and browsing activity. Furthermore, the app would also request screenshots of Amazon order histories.
When I first read the report, my initial response was “so what?” If people want to hand over the keys to their digital kingdom in exchange for Facebook's money, that's their choice. However, a bit more thought revealed some disturbing truths. For example, while the user may be happy for their data to be gathered, what about third-parties.
Through complete device access, Facebook also had contact information, access to potentially sensitive data from messages and emails, and more. Also, it is obvious the company was trying to hide Project Atlas. The app was not passed to Apple or Google's beta programs as it would have been reviewed and likely banned from the App Store and Google Play.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook went on the defensive:
“Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. 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. We don't share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time.
[…] 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 on-boarding 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.”
As usual, when something shady is discovered regarding Facebook, the company defends and then quietly tries to remove the offending service. This time, Project Atlas is being shuttered on iOS and we guess the Android version will follow shortly.