Facebook has apparently been paying customers $20 each to trade away their privacy to install a VPN which analyses usage, sidestepping Apple’s App Store policies.
The research initiative is similar to Onavo Protect, which was effectively banned by Apple last year, rewarding teenagers and adults to download the app to give the social media giant root access to network traffic which most likely would have been decrypted otherwise. According to TechCrunch, this is a violation of the App Store policies.
While $20 per user might seem like a huge amount, the data which is collected is incredibly valuable. Not only will it be able to identify usage habits, it will also contribute to competitor research. In theory, Facebook would be able to build a much more detailed competitor landscape, identifying potential threats to its business. The UK government has already unveiled documents which confirm Facebook uses the platform to inhibit competitive threats, so this type of data collection simply adds another nefarious cog to the devious machine.
According to the TechCrunch investigation, if Facebook makes full use of the freedoms granted through this app it would be able to access private messages from social media and other messaging apps, photos and videos, emails, web browsing activity and location information. What is worth noting is that is has not been confirmed whether this is the case, though Facebook could be heading for another privacy debacle.
This is of course not the first time Facebook has ventured into the murky world of surveillance. Back in 2014, the increasingly suspect social media giant acquired Onavo for $120 million. This VPN allowed users to minimize data leakage and improve the effectiveness of tariffs, but it also allowed Facebook to access deep analytics about what other apps they were using. This insight reportedly gave Facebook the confidence to make such a significant bet on WhatsApp.
The app came under pressure when it was revealed Facebook was stepping across the line, collecting information when the screen was off for example. Apple changed the App Store policies to ensure apps could only collect information which was critical to functionality, though by this point Facebook had a huge amount of competitive intelligence, and seemingly lit the fires of ambition.
One question which you really have to ask is how many lives Facebook has left. The last 12 months have been a carousel of scandal, saga and suspicion. Whether it is Cambridge Analytica, Friendly Fraud, fake news, influencing elections, violating privacy or snooping on customers, Facebook has poked and prodded the confidence and trust of the digital society. How much longer can this go on for?
Every time a new headline emerges about some nefarious or suspect activity from Facebook, the world much be getting closer to taking disruptive action. More and more people distrust the brand, but due to its influence in and penetration through digital society, usage of its applications have not been damaged much. You have to wonder how many more of these headlines the business can take; maybe it won’t be long before the Facebook empire is broken up.