Apple initially withdrew Facebook’s ability to test consumer facing apps on its platform but has since restored the same; Google yet to take any action
The app asked users to keep Facebook’s virtual private network (VPN) service running on their phones, allowing the social network to monitor their regular usage
Thousands of Indian users may have used Facebook Research over the past few months and unwittingly parted with their personal data. This has come to light ever since reports went viral over Facebook Inc. using its Facebook Research app to monitor the phone activity of those users who were paid by the company to install it.
First reported by TechCrunch, Facebook Research is an app that the company used to pay teenagers who volunteered to install it. The app asked users to keep Facebook’s virtual private network (VPN) service running on their phones, allowing the social network to monitor their regular usage.
Following reports of the app, Apple initially withdrew Facebook’s ability to test consumer facing apps on its platform but has since restored the same, while Google is yet to take any action. In fact, the search giant in turn removed one of its own apps (Screenwise Meter), which worked similarly to Facebook Research. Further, there are many more Android phones in India than iPhones.
Questions sent to Google remained unanswered at the time of publication of this report. In a statement, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, said, “This is a Facebook research app - it's very clear to the people participating that it's completely opt in, they go through a rigorous consent flow and people are compensated. That said, we know we have work to do to make sure people's data is protected. It's your information and you put it on Facebook so you need to know what's happening. We continue to focus on this work. In this case, the important thing is that the people participating in the research project knew they were involved and consented. As soon as we realized we weren't in compliance with the rules on their platform we pulled it."
According to Harshit Ahuja, one of the users of the app, the Facebook Research app was downloaded by at least 48,000 users in the country. Ahuja, who is 19 years old, told Mint that he joined the app on April 16, 2018, and has been getting people to sign up since. He claims to have been responsible for 500-700 installs of the app in the country, earning him over ₹5,00,000 till date, transferred to his PayPal account, because of the referrals Facebook gave for signing up. Ahuja provided us with a screenshot from the uTest platform, claiming the number of users shown in the screenshot was the number of Indian users on the app. Further, Ahuja also directed us to the Facebook profile of a person called Kewal Krishan, who has put up pictures of his earnings from the platform. According to these pictures, Krishan earned upwards of ₹1 lakh by referring people.
Another user, Vishal Darsheel, a 22-year-old blogger and Internet marketer from Bihar, said the Facebook Research app has earned him $5,000. Darsheel said he found the app from a Facebook Group called Tricky Inbox but used it only for a few months. He posted a Google form on Quora, asking others to sign up. The same thread also has other users who were trying to get referrals.
Ahuja told Mint that he was aware of the fact that Facebook would be using his data if he downloaded the app. He said he put the app on his secondary phone, which he only uses for running a mobile hotspot, so he wasn’t worried. He mentioned another user who had cloned his device to install multiple instances of the Facebook Research app, and used to earn over ₹10 lakh per month.
While the 48,000 number claimed by Ahuja is quite big, the actual number of installs may be bigger. Indranil Dutta, another user of the app, said he came across it via YouTube videos. He even shared the link of a video that has 20,000 views. According to Facebook, the total number of users who used the app globally is under 150,000.
Facebook has currently closed the new sign-ups for the app from India. Both Ahuja and Darsheel confirmed that not only are new sign ups not possible anymore, the referral amount has also reduced. In fact, Ahuja rued that the new referral amount (about 25 cents per referral) is too low. The referral amount used to be $10 per month per referral earlier.