Facebook has managed to put a price on privacy and it's right in the neighborhood of $20 a month. The company has been paying users between the ages of 13 and 35 about $20 a month for relatively unfettered access to their smartphone usage data, Techcrunch reports. The program, executed through the "Facebook Research" app, is administered through a number of third parties, obscuring the social media giant's involvement in the project.
Targeted potential users are served ads offering $20 Visa gift cards for installing the app, plus another $20 gift card for each friend referred.
When questions by Techcrunch, Facebook acknowledged the program, confirmed that their intent was to gather usage data, and indicated that they had no plans to stop the program.
"If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps," says Will Strafach, a security expert with Guardian Mobile Firewall, who studied the app. "[This includes] photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed."
Strafach points out that by agreeing to the terms of service of the application and installing the certificate, users are opening themselves up to a downright troubling amount of their personal usage data.This isn't Facebook's first foray into monitoring and analysis of usage data from personal devices. In 2014, the company acquired Onavo for $120 million, which enables a substantially similar program managed through Onavo Protect, a VPN application which also happened to report usage activity of other apps on the device. Onavo Protect was removed from Apple's iOS App Store for violations of the platform's terms of service with respect to data privacy and security.
While the extent of Facebook's use of such data so far remains unclear, reports emerged that in 2014 they had used Onavo Protect to identify a sharp rise in activity on messaging app WhatsApp, leading to the company purchasing the hot startup for $19 billion.
Today, Facebook Research circumvents the App Store by directing users to download the application directly for iOS or Android, enabling the needed root certificate to provide access to user data. Apple's Tim Cook has been a frequent critic of Facebook's business practices when it comes to privacy and security, leaving open the possibility that Apple will further crack down on such behaviors.