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article imageQ&A: Facebook app to pull user data for market research Special

By Tim Sandle     Jul 7, 2019 in Internet
Facebook has a new Android app called ‘Study by Facebook’ that will compensate users for letting the company see which apps/devices they use. Is this a good idea and should consumers be wary with their data privacy?
The app is an iteration of a previous app, called ‘Facebook Research’, which used the code from its free mobile VPN Onavo Protect to spy on users’ browsing activity and use that information for market research. Facebook Research and Onavo were both retired earlier this year after public outcry.
Francis Dinha, CEO and co-founder of OpenVPN (a security protocol) says that Facebook continues to “get away” with implementing initiatives like this over and over again because users have no idea that it’s happening right under their noses, as Dinha tells us in a special interview.
Digital Journal: What is the Study by Facebook app designed to do?
Francis Dinha: The Study app by Facebook is advertised to collect specific data from knowing and willing participants. Participants will be invited by Facebook to take part in this study program and will be required to allow the app to collect their data ranging from location and network type to what apps are installed on their phones and how long they spend using different apps.
Facebook is touting the Study program as a way to do research on its users to gain insights that will help improve its suite of products like WhatsApp, Instagram and other products.
DJ: How does this app differ from Facebook Research?
Dinha: The Facebook Research App targeted people as young as 13 years old, while the Study app can only be used by those 18 and older. The Research App also used an application rule in Apple that is usually used for business apps rather than public apps. Using those rules, Facebook circumvented privacy rules that Apple imposed for public apps and gave Facebook a wealth of information on those who used the Research App without their knowledge. Doing this ultimately forced Apple to revoke Facebook’s access to its developer program.
With the Study App, Facebook is attempting to be more transparent with the information it collects and use the same rules that other public apps in the Apple and Google app stores use, which is a benefit to the end user.
DJ: What happened with the Onavo Protect scandal?
Dinha: Until recently, Facebook offered Onavo Protect, a free mobile VPN app that users could get on the Apple App and Google Play stores. While it claimed to keep users’ personal information safe, it actually allowed Facebook to spy on its users’ browsing activity for market research.
Despite Apple pressuring Facebook to take the Onavo app down in 2018, the company was still using the Onavo Protect code in its Research app. It wasn’t until February of 2019 that Facebook fully discontinued the use of the Onavo Protect app by taking it off the Google Play Store.
Facebook’s Onavo Protect tool abused VPN technology. VPNs are typically used to encrypt and protect user data by hiding their true IP addresses and encrypting their data so no one can access it. VPNs are used around the world to protect privacy and freedom of speech and information. Facebook, however, used its Onavo app to invade user privacy.
DJ: What will Facebook be doing with the data?
Dinha: Facebook claims the data collected from participants will be used for business and product research. The goal is to gain a better understanding of its users and answer questions around what apps are being used and why. Seems harmless, but participants need to understand that participation means giving Facebook full access to your every move on your mobile device – where you are, what you’re looking at, for how long, during what times and who you are communicating with. This is very personal, and very valuable, data for any company. You would need to have an extreme amount of trust in a company to feel comfortable giving them this information.
DJ: Should consumers welcome the app or should they be wary, given Facebook’s history with data privacy issues?
Dinha: Consumers need to do their research and due diligence when downloading any apps or participating in online studies or research groups, whether through Facebook or another organization. For Facebook specifically, though, its decade-long history of data privacy issues should send warning signals to consumers looking into this app.
It is important that users really understand what this app is intended to do, what kind of data will be collected, whether their information will be shared with other companies, and, ultimately, how much their personal information is worth.
DJ: Are users fully aware of the data privacy issues?
Dinha: Unfortunately, we believe the majority of users are not fully aware – or aware at all – of Facebook’s data privacy issues. In fact, OpenVPN conducted a recent survey of 1000 employees to gauge their awareness of the Onavo scandal, and just 19% of respondents were even familiar with it. And although over half (51%) were familiar with the Cambridge Analytica data breach and 43% were familiar with leaked Facebook data on Amazon cloud servers, and a full quarter of respondents hadn’t heard of any of these data privacy issues at all.
DJ: What would you advise consumers to do if they are considering running the app?
Dinha: Users must do their research and due diligence before using this app. If you choose to use the Study app, know that you will be handing over private information about yourself – your habits, likes and dislikes, personality, etc. to a large conglomerate trying to profit off this knowledge.
More about Facebook, Market research, facebook app, Data privacy
 
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