Facebook and Google abuse Apple program and Apple smacks back

Sometimes big companies collect user data surreptitiously — and sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight. That was the case with a program Facebook was running, as well as a similar program from Google, that took advantage of Apple’s Enterprise Developer Program to collect extensive information about users, including teens.

The Enterprise Developer Program was created to be used internally by companies, for applications that they distribute internally. For example, Google uses it for the app that employees use for their buses and it can also be used to test and deploy apps internally before taking them public. It allows for companies to do all of this without accessing the App Store. That’s a crucial point, because the App Store has strict rules and strong oversight that would have caught either of these programs, preventing them from going lie.

But instead of keeping their research app internal, Facebook used the program to distribute Facebook Research, an app that offered $20 in gift cards for near-total access to people’s cellphones, as first reported by TechCrunch. Since 2016, the app tracked users’ browsing history, the contents of their messages, their app usage, location data, and asked for root access to any data on their phones. It was targeted at people between the ages of 13 and 35, 5 percent of whom were reportedly teenagers. It also wasn’t entirely clear that the app was run by Facebook, unless people read closely during sign up.

Google’s app was called Screenwise Meter and it had been in operation since 2012. Screenwise Meter was a company-owned “VPN” that monitored user data. VPN is a virtual private network and the reason it’s in quotes in this case is because VPNs are supposed to encrypt and protect user data — not be used as a tool to monitor it. The app was originally available to users as young as 13, but Google increased the age limit to 18, with younger teens being allowed to join if they were part of family group. Once TechCrunch asked Google if their app, like Facebook’s violated Apple policy, the company apologized and pulled it down. Here’s what they said to TC:

“The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in this app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

But Apple clearly felt it was too little, too late: They cut off both Facebook and Google’s access to the Enterprise Developer Program almost immediately. This move was more than just a smack on the wrist, as it not only disabled their data-collecting apps but also any internal iOS apps the tech giants had developed for their employees to use. It’s a move that could potentially throw both companies into chaos.

Luckily for them, Apple restored their access quickly — within five hours for Google and one day for Facebook — and the tech companies are “in the process of getting our internal apps up and running,” according to a statement Facebook made to media. Will this incident make them think twice about sketchy data practices in the future? History suggests… No.

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