Facebook recently landed in hot (boiling) water when it was uncovered that Facebook has been paying teens to install a “research” VPN on their devices that would allow the tech giant to see all of the teen’s cellular and web usage, for about $20 worth of gift cards each month.
The participants were largely recruited into the program as a result of targeted Snapchat and Instragram ads, and offered participants additional incentives to refer friends into the program too.
The purpose of this Big Brother program was not to empower young minds with technological innovation, but to use all of this data to track Facebook’s competitors, keep track of emerging trends, and otherwise be creepin’ on the kids. The program reportedly went so far as to ask users to share screenshots of their Amazon order history pages.
According to the report: “Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity.”
Oh, and if the privacy concerns of this whole program weren’t terrifying enough; it has been going on since 2016.
Almost immediately after the news broke, Apple banned Facebook’s Research VPN and shut down the iOs version of the Research app, before Facebook could suspend the program voluntarily. Apple also released a statement condemning the program and Facebook’s shady choice to hide it in the iOs Developer certificate rather than the App Store (where apps that collect personal data have been banned since last summer).
This entire debacle highlights the murky borders of online consent when children and teens are involved. Not only are teens less likely to be aware of the risks of sharing their data, but also often parental “consent” is not real. There’s no verification of parental consent; if a teen checks a box in an online form saying that they are their parent—the website is none the wiser. The same is true for many age verification processes.
If you are a real parent reading this and want to check to make sure that your teen’s not selling their personal data for pennies, you LifeHacker has instructions to help you identify whether or not they are in the program (and get them out of it!).
This entire debacle is a nice reminder that large tech companies may offer innovative services, high salaries to employees, and strange new ways of keeping in touch with people we’d probably forgotten by now, but the product is not the social networks they build.
The product that Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other giants are really interested in is data – we’ve been reporting that for over a decade now. Their treatment of people that may not even be able to consent to sharing their data highlights this narrow goal. If you a not a person, but rather a collection of market insights, what does your age matter? It’s just another variable for the algorithms (robots).
The upside of this entire debacle is that many parents previously unaware of this type of program are now talking to their children about this topic.
Further, this gives politicians more tangible evidence of why media companies like Facebook should never get a free pass for bad behavior.