Full extent of Facebook’s secret data collecting revealed

Back in February, Facebook and Google were unceremoniously kicked off of Apple’s enterprise program, which was supposed to be used by companies to create apps that could be utilized internally by their employees. However, it wasn’t clear exactly how many users had their personal data collected by the companies when the news initially broke. Now, a Facebook letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, obtained by TechCrunch, reveals that the company collected data on 137,000 Americans, including 4,300 teenagers. The remainder of the users 187,000 whose data was collected were in India.

Both Google and Facebook lean heavily on the Apple enterprise program to create internal apps for employees who use iPhones. For example, Google employees have an Apple enterprise app that manages the shuttles that bring them to campus. The enterprise program is important for other companies because it allows them to get around the strict restrictions of the Apple Store. However, Apple discovered that both companies were using the program to create research apps that were collecting data about their users instead.

Facebook’s enterprise-developed app was called Project Atlas and it offered $20 in gift cards for near-total access to people’s cellphones, as first reported by TechCrunch. 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. And while Facebook technically let users know that they were collecting data, only those who closely read the terms at signup would have known.

Facebook said that the app was created in 2016, but the newly accessed letter says that it was created later.

“We know that the provisioning profile for the Facebook Research app was created on April 19, 2017, but this does not necessarily correlate to the date that Facebook distributed the provisioning profile to end users,” Timothy Powderly, Apple’s director of federal affairs, said in the letter.

Project Atlas was actually the latest iteration of the Onavo Protect VPN that TechCrunch also exposed in February of last year. That scandal was about Facebook offering a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) that was actually collecting user data. In what would turn out to be a pattern, users would only know their data was being collected if they clicked “more” on the terms, where the very last sentence read, “As part of this process, Onavo collects your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. Because we're part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and services people value, and build better experiences.”

The latest iteration from Facebook is a new research app called Study, which won’t be available to iPhone users at all, as it will only be accessible on Google Play. Additionally, all participants will be approved through Facebook’s research partner Applause. The company promises that they’ll be more transparent about their data collection practices in the future but if their previous track record is anything to go by, it’s probably best not to take them at their word.

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