Would You Share Your Smartphone Usage Data for $20?

Would You Share Your Smartphone Usage Data for $20?

Would You Share Your Smartphone Usage Data for $20?

Justin Lavelle
February 20, 2019

People are often willing to do a lot of things for money — including opening up their private browsing and messaging history to a large corporation.

In news that may or may not surprise, Facebook recently offered $20 in monthly gift cards to users who downloaded the Facebook Research Application. What the company received for that monthly sum was root access to participants’ smartphones, giving Facebook the right, license and freedom to remotely install software and monitor phone and internet activity.

Among these participants were a group of users under the age of 18. While teens only made up 5 percent of this set of Facebook Research App users (and they were required to obtain parental consent before downloading the app), some argue that the data of these underaged users could have been too easily exploited. Additionally, many allege that fewer than all of the teen participants were adequately informed or, according to some, practically understood that Facebook was entitled to install nearly anything they wished on these users’ smartphones during the study.

According to Will Strafach, a security expert who investigated the matter in connection with TechCrunch, Facebook was equipped to collect and view “private messages in social media apps, chats from instant messaging apps (including photos/videos sent to others), emails, web searches, web browsing activity and even ongoing location information.”

When Apple learned about the broad access and tracking abilities granted to Facebook by its app, the Facebook Research App was banned from iOS. Apple released a statement about the app that said:

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

Why Reading the Fine Print on App User Agreements Matters

While Facebook did obtain participant permission (and adult/guardian consent) prior to accessing such personal information, many users didn’t realize the extent to which the company was going to review the activity, or as some users may have characterized it, snoop. Additionally, this is not the first instance that Facebook has allegedly created apps containing what some feel entailed questionable data collection strategies. Onavo Protect, another Facebook VPN app that served as the code model for the Facebook Research App, was also said to have been removed from iOS for violating the Apple App Store’s user privacy policy.

There are many apps such as this that may go unnoticed, especially by less-savvy youngsters simply looking to earn some easy money. That being said, one should always closely read and review the fine print before downloading an app, especially one that may be empowered to take certain action on your devices/accounts on your behalf. Allowing any third-party to install software on your phone could ultimately expose you to data hacking and/or identity theft in the event that the program is breached, so you may want to be very careful about what you allow your apps to do and what security measures and ratings these Apps bear.

Teach Your Child About Smartphone Data Sharing Risks

If you’re the parent of a child with smartphone access, data privacy becomes even more important. It’s wise to speak to your children about the apps they install and help them better understand the risks involved in sharing their usage data.

For apps such as the Facebook Research App referenced above, which perforce require parental consent before they may collect and monitor device use, you may want to pause and consider the possible repercussion before granting liberal access to your child’s smartphone activity and/or conversations.

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Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.