Facebook announced it will take down the iOS version of its Research app after TechCrunch accused the company of paying users to download it so it could snoop on their phone activity.
The publication found Facebook had been paying users aged between 13 and 35 years-old up to $20 a month to download the VPN app and collect data on their usage habits since 2016.
A security expert told TechCrunch the app enabled Facebook to access information including users email, web searches and browsing activity, location information, and pictures or videos shared with friends.
It is unclear whether Facebook accessed all data available, or how it used the information it did gather through the app.
Facebook distributed the app through beta testing services Betabound and Applause, but a representative told TechCrunch it was not trying to hide its involvement. The social media giant’s name is part of the app’s title and all users signed up “went through a clear on-boarding process” involving relevant permissions to access their data.
“We don’t share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time,” the representative said.
While Facebook also noted the app complies with Apple’s Developer Enterprise Certificate programme, its decision to remove the iOS version points to a potential breach of Apple’s policies. In 2018 Apple demanded the removal of the Onavo Protect VPN app because the service breached its data collection policies.
Onavo Protect is still available for Android devices via Google Play and has been installed more than 10 million times. Facebook made no mention of Android in relation to the Research app.
Regardless of the reasons for ditching the app, the move is another blow to Facebook’s reputation following accusations of widespread misuse of users’ data.