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Facebook asks teens to trade their privacy away for $20

January 29 · Issue #281 · View online
The Interface
One popular criticism of Facebook and other tech platforms is that they never compensate users for their time, their data, or their contributions. Facebook is one of the richest companies in the world because of the data we hand over to it for free, the argument goes. Why doesn’t it pay up?
Today we learned that Facebook has heard these criticisms — and if you’re aged 13 to 35, it would like to give you a $20 gift card.
In exchange, all you have to give up is total access to all data on your phone, and also maybe screenshot your Amazon purchases and fork that over too. Josh Constine has the scoop in TechCrunch:
Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.
We asked Guardian Mobile Firewall’s security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and he told us that “If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the Certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps – including photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed.” It’s unclear exactly what data Facebook is concerned with, but it gets nearly limitless access to a user’s device once they install the app.
As I wrote in my quick gloss on the story, Facebook was previously collecting some of this data through Onavo Protect, a VPN service that it acquired in 2013. The data has proven extremely valuable to Facebook in identifying up-and-coming competitors, then acquiring or cloning them. Facebook removed the app from the App Store last summer after Apple complained that it violated the App Store’s guidelines on data collection.
The Research app requires that users install a custom root certificate, which gives Facebook the ability to see users’ private messages, emails, web searches, and browsing activity. It also asks users to take screenshots of their Amazon order history and send it back to Facebook.
And as Constine reports, Facebook is using these enterprise certificates in ways that almost certainly violate Apple’s policies — at a time when tensions between Apple and Facebook are running at an all-time high:
Facebook claim that it doesn’t violate Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy is directly contradicted by the terms of that policy. Those include that developers “Distribute Provisioning Profiles only to Your Employees and only in conjunction with Your Internal Use Applications for the purpose of developing and testing”. The policy also states that “You may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to Your Customers” unless under direct supervision of employees or on company premises. Given Facebook’s customers are using the Enterprise Certificate-powered app without supervision, it appears Facebook is in violation.
Will Strafach, who consulted on the TechCrunch story, said in a tweet that Facebook Research represented “the most defiant behavior I have EVER seen by an App Store developer. It’s mind blowing. … I still don’t know how to best articulate how absolutely floored I am by Facebook thinking they can get away with this.”
Facebook hadn’t responded to my request for comment at press time. It told Constine that this was just a garden-variety focus group program like those run by Nielsen or ComScore — neither of which install root certificates on focus group members’ phones.
A generous reading of Facebook Research could be that the company is at least starting to realize the value of the data that users provide it, and is offering to compensate some of those users in exchange for very little work on the user’s part.
And yet when you consider the value of Onavo to Facebook, those $20 gift cards hardly seem adequate. Onavo was an early warning system about competitors put to great use by a company that embraced the mantra of Only The Paranoid Survive. It informed the decision to acquire WhatsApp and clone Snapchat stories. Following the initial success of Periscope and Meerkat, it spurred the company to launch a live video feature.
All of which would lead me to feel better if Facebook were offering its research subjects thousands of dollars a month, rather than hundreds. Certainly the company can afford it. But once again we find the company operating by its most time-tested growth strategy — doing whatever it can get away with.

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And finally ...
Billionaire Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is exploring a run for the presidency, and recently started a Twitter account to gauge interest in his campaign. Unfortunately for Schultz, people have been interested primarily in roasting him — and as HuffPo‘s Ashley Feinberg noted, he may be the first Twitter user to be ratioed in every single one of his tweets. That is, everything he says generates more replies — most of which are negative — than hearts or retweets.
Here’s to healthy conversation on Twitter dot com!
Ashley Feinberg
does Howard Schultz have the first account to consist of nothing but ratios
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