In January, when news first broke that Facebook had been paying teens in gift cards to let it install what is, by definition, essentially spyware on their phones, it seemed like just another Tuesday. Had it been virtually any other company, the outrage would have been tenfold. After all, paying 13-year-olds to gain access to their mobile app usage and browser traffic is, on its face, an unconscionably creepy way for a business to gather intelligence about its competitors. But this shameless undertaking is now precisely the kind of dissolute conduct we’ve come to expect from the occupants 1 Hacker Way.
Facebook’s moral turpitude aside, it’s now come to light that the company also initially underreported the percentage of teens that it had paid to become lab rats, while falsely stating that parental consent forms were required.
Citing responses from the company to questions posed by Sen. Mark Warner, TechCrunch reports that Facebook now claims “about 18 percent” of the people it convinced to download the “Facebook Research App” were teens. This, as opposed to the “5 percent” figure the company provided reporters over a month ago.
As it turns out, when first asked by TechCrunch’s Josh Constine how many teens were using the app, Facebook was apparently only referring to how many teens were currently using it, as opposed to how many had used it across the program’s lifespan.
On Friday, Constine reported: “Given users age 13 to 35 were eligible for Facebook’s Research program, 13 to 18 year olds made of 22 percent of the age range. That means Facebook clearly wasn’t trying to minimize teen involvement, nor were they just a tiny fraction of users.”
The company also misled reporters by claiming at the time that all underage users were required to provide “signed parental consent forms.” They weren’t. In response to Warner’s inquiry, Facebook said that its vendors “did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.”
In some cases, this “confirmation” was actually just a kid checking a box online claiming that he or she had their guardians’ permission to receive money from Facebook in exchange for letting it suck up all their phone and web activity.
The deception didn’t end there. In response to Constine’s initial story, the company claimed that it would shut down the iOS version of the app, as TechCrunch had raised the possibility of it violating Apple’s Enterprise Certificate rules, which led to the temporary bricking of all Facebook’s internal iOS app. What the company passed off as a proactive measure, however, turned out to actually be Apple forcing Facebook’s hand. The removal of the app, in other words, was not voluntary.
As was reported a week ago, the research app continued to operate on Android phones for nearly another month. Facebook also claims to be killing off Onavo, an app the company was passing off as a way for users to protect their data, but which was in reality just feeding all of said data back to Facebook—reportedly, even when the app was turned off. (Apple has already pulled it, stating it violates its data-collection policies.)
Facebook, of course, has drafted an impressive amount of corp-speak to justify paying kids in exchange for installing peep-holes onto their phones. “Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better,” it says. It further clarified that the purpose of its app was “market research,” in case there was some confusion over the only point of this being to help Facebook make more money.
The company’s defense is that it was upfront with the kids whose phones it surveilled in exchange for money. “Each user was required to complete a clear consent flow prior to participation,” it said. “Potential participants were required to confirm that they were over 18 or provide other evidence of parental consent, though the vendors did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.”
A signed parental consent form is something most kids are required to have before a field trip to the zoo. Facebook wanted to collect information about every website they visited and every app they were using. And of course, kids who want for nothing are unlikely to need Facebook’s $20 a month. It was the ones to whom $20 is a lot of money that you can imagine would be willing to sacrifice their privacy—if they thought about the potential consequences at all.
The company also notes that it didn’t share the information it collected “with others,” and that “people can stop participating at any time.”
It’s certainly generous of Facebook not to include a “no take backs” clause in the deal, but the promise that Facebook would never share the information with any external entities is flimsy and, frankly, very difficult to believe. This is a company that has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to exercise responsible control over its users’ data.
“I was pleased to learn that Facebook made its role in the research study relatively prominent,” Senator Warner said in regards to the letter. “I still have grave concerns with the way that Facebook has used both the research app and its VPN Onavo to keep track of emerging competitors, in ways that users do not reasonably expect.”
You can read a complete copy of Facebook’s letter to Warner here.