Apple Bans Facebook’s Internal iOS Apps After It Was Caught Spying

ban on Facebook research app

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Facebook is again in the news for one more privacy scandal. A TechCrunch investigation a couple of days back uncovered a shady Facebook Research app that pays people to share their smartphone data. As was expected, the app was against Apple’s policy guidelines, and thus, Apple has now rightly banned the Facebook Research app.

How Facebook Research app violated Apple’s rules?

Apple, specifically, disabled the certificate that allows the social networking giant to distribute the Research app through Apple’s Enterprise Certificate Program. Revoking the certificate blocks the Research app from Facebook.

After TechCrunch reported its investigation, Facebook said that it would remove the iOS app from the program. But, it appears, Apple moved quicker than the social media firm.

“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,” an Apple spokesperson said in a statement to Mashable.

Facebook was able to distribute its Facebook Research app via Apple’s Developer Enterprise Program. The program is specifically meant for distributing apps internally within companies and organizations. So, it was a clear violation of Apple’s policies. Apple doesn’t review the apps under the Enterprise Program the same way as it does for the App Store, since the former are only supposed to be downloaded by employees.

What Facebook had to say?

As per the report from TechCrunch, Facebook under its “Project Atlas” research program offered users $20 a month plus a referral fee to install an app that gives Facebook complete access to their smartphone data on iPhone and Android. The program targeted users aged between 13 to 35 years.

Additionally, Facebook used third-party beta testing services to manage the whole thing to hide its involvement. The Research app allowed the company to access users’ private messages, location data, app history, emails and more.

The Verge notes that the ban on the Facebook Research app affects not only the pre-release beta of Facebook’s iOS app, but also WhatsApp and Instagram as well.  Facebook has also confirmed to Mashable that Apple’s ban on the Facebook Research app does affect the company’s internal apps.

Facebook, however, maintains that it has not done anything wrong in collecting the user data. However, the social networking giant did not comment on if it violated Apple’s policies on the distribution of the apps.

Defending the program, the company said there was no secret as the app was “literally” called the Facebook Research App. Also, the users who signed up gave their permission and were paid. On collecting data from teens, Facebook said less than 5% of the participants in the program were teens, who submitted signed parental consent forms.

Apple vs. Facebook – not the first time

This is not the first time that Apple has banned a Facebook app. In August of last year, Facebook had to remove its Onavo VPN app from the App Store after it came to light that it violated Apple’s data collection policies. It must be noted that TechCrunch’s investigation found a lot of similarity between the codes for the Onavo VPN app and the Research app.

Also, the Facebook Research app fiasco is not the first time Apple and Facebook have stood against each other. After the Cambridge Analytica data scandal last year, when Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked to comment on what he would do if he was Facebook CEO, Cook remarked “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Later, there were reports that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was so annoyed with Cook’s remark that he ordered Facebook employees to use Android phones.

Many refer to the ongoing unannounced feud between Apple and Facebook as a tech cold war.

Importance of data to Facebook

This whole incident again highlights the importance of data, specifically the data on other apps people use on their phones, is to Facebook. Such data gives Facebook an undue competitive advantage.

A previous report from the Wall Street Journal claimed that data from the Onavo app helped Facebook executives know about Snapchat’s slowing user growth after Facebook copied its Stories feature. BuzzFeed noted that Facebook also used Onavo data to track WhatsApp’s user base before buying it in 2014 for $19 billion.

So, there are many reasons why Facebook wants to know about the apps that users use on their phones. Also, this explains why Facebook resorts to such unfair practices, like violating Apple’s App Store guidelines, to get its hands on user data.



About the Author

Aman Jain
Aman is MBA (Finance) with an experience on both Marketing and Finance side. He has worked as a Risk Analyst for AIR Worldwide, and is currently leading VeRa FinServ, a Financial Research firm. Favorite pastimes include watching science fiction movies, reviewing tech gadgets, playing PC games and cricket. - Email him at amanjain@valuewalk.com