Facebook Paying Teenagers and Adults to Install an App that Spies on Them

This one is rather shocking. We warn children all the time to be careful what they do on their phones. And we’ve all been warned that Facebook isn’t the innocent company that we thought it was, only interested in our data. But these two warnings came together in a project that is rather shocking.

Facebook is paying teenagers, as well as adults, to install a research app on their phones so that they could spy on them. People are willingly walking into this project.

Facebook by Teens’ Privacy

Facebook just never seems to understand privacy concerns. They have gotten in trouble so many times for selling user data, yet now they are rewarding people to download and use the Research app that gives them root access to network traffic so that they can decrypt and analyze user activity on their phones.

TechCrunch reports for the past three years the social network has paid users between the ages of 13 and 35 up to $20 monthly plus referral fees to install the “Facebook Research app on iOS and Android.

The program is administered through beta testing services to hide the involvement of Facebook and is sometimes referred to as “Project Atlas,” though the app’s name is “Facebook Research.”

After the TechCrunch story regarding Facebook’s project, they told the tech site that they will shut down the iOS version of the app; however, stunningly, it will continue on Android. It has not been officially confirmed that this was a violation of Apple’s terms with the App Store.


Will Strafach, Guardian Mobile Firewalls security expert, looked into the app and determined, “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 instant messaging apps – including 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 have installed.”

This certainly seems to be a violation of Apple’s rules for being included in the App Store. Tim Cook has been critical of Facebook’s data collection practices, and this doesn’t seem like it will help that situation any.

“The fairly technical sounding ‘install our Root Certificate’ step is appalling,” adds Strafach. “This hands Facebook continuous access to the most sensitive data about you, and most users are going to be unable to reasonably consent to this regardless of any agreement they sign because there is no good way to articulate just how much power is handed to Facebook when you do this.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Facebook got in trouble from Apple for spying on users. They offered the Onavo app earlier that while it helped users track and minimize use of their data plan, it also gave the social media giant analytics about the other apps people were using. Apple considered this a violation of their policies and Onava was removed from the App Store.

Facebook’s Biggest Misstep

But the most egregious action on Facebook’s part isn’t just that they were spying on users through their app but that they were targeting teenagers as young as 13. As much as we focus sometimes on kids and their Internet usage, Facebook was spying on them and promising money in return.

What do you think of Facebook’s practices? Should this be allowed? While Apple won’t allow it, Android does. Should they not allow it either? Let us know in the comments below what you think of Facebook paying teenagers to spy on them.

Laura Tucker Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews, and op-eds, with more than 10 of those years as an editor as well. She has exclusively used Apple products for the past three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site's sponsored review program.


  1. Another question not asked is who will decide how to use the information gathered? Marketing, Law Enforcement, Those trying to find ways around the laws. Academic research? Military uses for soldiering. Which option would Sci Fi writers make the scariest exaggerated stories out of? Who is qualified and honest enough to keep the use of this information on a positive direction instead of a profit and control use. when I was a 13 year old in the early 70’s I felt very mature and able to make decisions on who could track my activities. I’m pretty certain my mom wouldn’t have liked it, but I was more independent than most. I don’t think 13 year olds have the same awareness and have many times more information risks and awareness than I did back then. I think the use of the information should be specific enough to hold up in a college level court and anyone accepting cash for opening their accounts on their owned devices could make that decision with their parent/guardians awareness. Maybe something like financial institutions annual summary of how much was gathered and if it was used for the stated intentions and what impact it had should be necessary. (Metrics/transparency)

    1. ” Which option would Sci Fi writers make the scariest exaggerated stories out of?”
      A large number of Sci-Fi exaggerated predictions, both scary and not, have come true. Orwell indeed was a visionary.

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