Just months after its high-profile data privacy scandal involving a program to track app usage of young teens, Facebook is back with another plan to track app usage. According to Facebook executives, the social networking giant has learned from its previous mistakes. As a result, the new market research app, known as Study, will be all about transparency, fair compensation for users taking part in the program, and safety. While anyone can download the Study app from the Google Play Store, the ability to take part in the program will be invitation-only, limited to users above the age of 18 in the United States and India who are recruited via ads seen on Facebook.
Details of Facebook’s plan to track app usage
With the new app called Study, Facebook is essentially paying users to get very granular insights into the various ways that they use apps on their smartphone. In exchange for giving Facebook unprecedented access to their app activity, users will get a small payment each month. As part of the plan to track app usage, Facebook will collect information about which apps are installed, how much time they spend on those apps, and which app features or activities are most popular. In addition, Facebook will receive information about the device and network type being used to access the device.
However, Facebook says that it will not collect or store any information about user IDs or passwords, and will not snoop on any user content that is shared via these apps. For example, if someone is using a messaging app, Facebook will simply note that the user is messaging someone else, but will not actually read the content of those message. And, likewise, if users are sharing photos and videos, Facebook will not store, collect or analyze the content of those photos or videos. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook will not sell information to third parties, will not target ads based on the information acquired during the Study program, and will not add any user activity information to existing profiles.
The goal, quite simply, is to acquire critical insights about user activity online so as to figure out which features or offerings Facebook should roll out next. If users are showing a preference for group video chat features, for example, then Facebook might ramp up plans to create similar apps or similar types of features. And if users are showing a preference for watching certain types of video content, Facebook might adjust its strategic plan for video on the social networking plan. As Facebook outlined in a blog post, Study is essentially a classic market research program for the company’s users, in order to track app usage and get access to their data usage patterns. So what could possibly go wrong?
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Market research or spying?
The problem is that Facebook’s track record when it comes to data privacy is filled with egregious examples of how the Facebook research team has repeatedly bent the rules in order to get the information and data they need from users. Earlier this year, in January 2019, reports surfaced that a Facebook research program (codename “Atlas”) specifically targeted users as young as age 13, encouraging them to hand over full access to their smartphones in order to spy on them. Unlike the current Study program, Facebook did not put any safeguards into place to make sure that certain content about research participants was not acquired by the research team – including encrypted information, web browsing activity and private messages. Apple was so appalled by Facebook’s abuse of its policies that it shut down Facebook’s research app, citing unprincipled user research. It’s perhaps for that reason that the new Facebook app will be available for Android users online, and will not be available in the App Store.
Moreover, Facebook has a similar type of spotty record when it comes to a virtual private network (VPN) that it launched for users known as Onavo Protect. And don’t forget about the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which third party entities received access to vast troves of user data, without any consent granted. So is there any reason to expect that Study from Facebook will be any different?
For these reasons, it’s easy to see why initial reaction to Facebook’s plan for paying Facebook users for their information has met with such negative reaction from privacy experts. The new Study app has been described as “an app that spies on your phone.” What Facebook calls a plan to track app usage others call a plan to snoop on the most intimate details of a user’s life. There are simply too many different ways that things that this “pay for data” scheme could go wrong, especially the potential for data to end up in the wrong hands.
Other legal, regulatory and ethical concerns about the plan to track app usage
And that’s just the start of Facebook’s problems. Some industry experts say that Facebook could run afoul of antitrust concerns. Essentially, they say, Facebook is using all information gathered as part of its plan to track app usage in order to gain an unfair competitive edge on its rivals. In the past, Facebook has ruthlessly copied, co-opted or simply acquired any competitor that comes close to challenging its market share. Moreover, leaked internal documents from Facebook have repeatedly shown that the company is willing to use data as both a carrot and stick in order to keep partners in line.
Moreover, there are serious concerns that Facebook could be trying to skirt GDPR protections by limiting the program to user participants in the U.S. and India – two nations not covered by the groundbreaking European privacy legislation. In the past, Facebook has been very brazen about attempts to collect, store and analyze data from users in potential violation of GDPR principles.
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So where do we go from here? If you buy into the argument that Facebook has learned its lessons from past missteps, then the new Study program to track app usage might not appear to raise any data privacy concerns. After all, Facebook seems to have taken special steps to ensure that all the problems from previous interactions with research participants have been corrected. However, given the string of broken Facebook promises in the past, it’s easy to see how this new Facebook initiative to track app usage is likely to attract the further attention of legislators and regulators.