Some Facebook users have been giving the social network access to their phone activity in exchange for money as part of a research project since 2016. The story was first reported Tuesday by TechCrunch.
Facebook, which critics say isn't doing enough to protect the privacy of its users, has been giving people between the ages of 13 and 35 a payment of $20 per month plus referral fees for their phone and web activity. Facebook is able to access this data after users install a "Facebook Research" VPN app.
The company is able to view web searches, location information, private messages in social media apps, and other data, Guardian Mobile Firewall security specialist Will Strafach told TechCrunch. The study's participants are even asked to screenshot a page showing what they ordered from Amazon, according to TechCrunch.
Beta testing services BetaBound, uTest and Applause helped distribute the app and don't initially mention on the sign-up pages for the social media study that they're letting Facebook access participants' data. But if minors try to join the study through a page administered by Applause, they have to get their parents to sign a form that mentions Facebook's involvement in the study.
The "Facebook Research" app is similar to Facebook's Onavo Protect app that Apple banned from the App Store for violating its privacy rules, according to TechCrunch. Facebook removed the Onavo app in August.
Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that it was running a research program to learn about people's phone usage.
"Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better," a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. "Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we've provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don't share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time."
But Facebook balked at some of TechCrunch's characterizations of the program. A Facebook spokesperson told CBS News, "Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing 'secret' about this; 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. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms."
BetaBound, uTest and Applause didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
This story originally appeared in CNET as, "Facebook paid teens $20 a month to access their browsing history and DMs"