This time, Facebook didn’t say sorry.
After it was revealed that the social network had been paying people to install a “Facebook Research” app that revealed their every move on their mobile phones, Facebook was defiant.
“There was nothing ‘secret’ about this,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
But after TechCrunch broke the story, Facebook said it would end the program on Apple. Which, in turn, said it had banned Facebook from having the app in its iOS App Store.
The app has disappeared from the Google Play Store as well. However, an earlier data collection app by Facebook called Onavo is still available in the Google Play app Store.
Apple said Facebook was distributing a data-collecting app to consumers that represented a “a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”
Google’s policy says developers “must be transparent in how you handle user data (e.g., information collected from or about a user, including device information). That means disclosing the collection, use, and sharing of the data, and limiting the use of the data to the purposes disclosed, and the consent provided by the user.”
On Twitter, security expert Will Strafach had a different take from Facebook. He said the social network’s moves to get the app to consumers was “the most defiant behavior I have ever seen. It’s mind blowing.”
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So what’s the big deal? Let’s explain.
Facebook has a history of harvesting information from its users, which it then uses to sell targeted ads.
That’s how the system works, explained Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Here you get our services for free—and we work separately with advertisers to show you relevant ads. This model can feel opaque, and we’re all distrustful of systems we don’t understand.”
In 2018, Facebook found itself in hot water when it was revealed that a rogue app developer had passed on personal information from some 87 million Facebook users to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which had ties to the Donald Trump presidential campaign.
The information was gleaned from users who had clicked on a survey app on Facebook. The social network apologized, said Cambridge violated their policies, and changed rules to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again.
Another scandal hit by the end of the year, when Facebook said accounts of nearly 50 million users had been breached. It apologized again.
The latest Facebook scandal is all about data harvesting, which is what Facebook looked to do with the Facebook Research app.It was billed as a way to learn more about how people use their data.
The Facebook Research app was a virtual private network, a way to have private browsing. A VPN can intercept the data on your phone and go direct to Apple and Google servers.
Apple had removed the earlier app, Facebook Protect Onavo, from the iOS App Store due to privacy concerns. The app is still available for Android phones on the Google Play Store.
Apple’s policy says that app developers are not allowed to offer apps “for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing.”
The workaround for Facebook was installing what’s called an “enterprise developer certificate,” and that’s used by developers to make apps for internal use, without publishing them to the App Store.
“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization,” Apple said in a statement. “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.”
Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst with Kaleido Insights, says the latest scandal is small potatoes compared to past Facebook transgressions.
The information collected is the “same information any marketer wants to know,” he says. “How people use their apps, where else they go on their phones. That’s not a bad thing. They want to understand how we interact beyond Facebook and how we interact with other chat programs.”
He predicts there won’t be much fallout to this one. “People will criticize it, and then move on to the next crisis.”
For instance, Jim Steyer, the CEO of advocacy group Common Sense Media, put out a statement attacking Facebook.
“Once again, Facebook has been exposed for putting profits before people. The company’s manipulative tactics and desire to gather every waking thought about its users at any cost is unacceptable.”
The back and forth between Facebook and Apple is all about corporate politics, says Owyang. Apple itself fell into hot privacy water this week when it was revealed that a bug in the FaceTime video calling app could eavesdrop on your conversations even if you don’t answer the call. Apple has since disabled the app’s group chat function.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.