Apple bans Facebook from running its 'research program' on iOS devices

Apple said that Facebook had improperly used it to track the web-browsing habits of teenagers.

Apple Inc says that it has banned Facebook from a program designed to let businesses control iPhones used by their employees, saying the social networking company had improperly used it to track the web-browsing habits of teenagers.

Apple offers what are known as certificates that let businesses have deep controls over iPhones, with the potential to remotely install apps, monitor app usage, and access, and delete data owned by a business on an iPhone. Apple designed the program for organizations whose staff use iPhones for official duties, when privacy needs are different from phones for personal use.

On Tuesday, technology news site TechCrunch reported that Facebook was paying users as young as 13 years old to install an app called Facebook Research. Additionally, the report also suggested that in exchange for downloading this app's VPN, Facebook was paying these teens off with $20 a month in the name of paid research.

Apple bans Facebook from running its research program on iOS devices

Representational image.

The app used Apple’s business tools to ask for an iPhone user’s permission to install so-called virtual private network software that can track browsing habits. Reportedly, the program had been in distribution since 2016 and was referred to as "Project Atlas" starting in mid-2018.

The app was found to be similar to Onavo Protect, a Facebook app that was pulled last year due to Apple's privacy objections. For obvious reasons, the Facebook Research app would then also be in violation of Apple's policies as most of its program code seems to be taken lock, stock from Onavo's code.

Now, Apple has ejected Facebook from the business app program, saying in a statement to Recode, that the program was “solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization.”

“Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple,” Apple said in the statement.

The ban does not affect Facebook’s apps in Apple’s App Store, which Facebook depends on to distribute Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram apps to iPhone users. But it does mean that Facebook will not be able to distribute internal apps to its own employees.

In a statement, Facebook said key aspects of the research program were being ignored and that it had secured users’ permission.

“Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this,” Facebook said in a statement. “It was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.”

Facebook said fewer than five percent of the participants in the program were teens and that all of those teens had signed parental consent forms.

With inputs from Reuters.

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