Facebook Exec: Teenagers "consented" to Installing Spyware on their Phones

Facebook's chief operating officer has commented publicly on the recent TechCrunch report that Facebook was “paying teens to install VPN that spies on them.”

The report brought questions of ethics relating to privacy and access to data to the forefront.

Now, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg has responded to the story and subsequent scandal, saying that the teens in question had “consented” to their data being accessed by Facebook in the terms of service, and in return for financial gain paid for by Facebook.

Journalist Josh Constine reported that “Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a ‘Facebook Research’ VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August.”

When the report surfaced earlier this week, Apple blocked Facebook’s ‘Research VPN’, “revoking the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store,” according to TechCrunch.

“This not only breaks the Research app, but all of Facebook’s internal-use employee apps for collaboration and logistics too” according to reporter Josh Constine.

Facebook COO Sandberg told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin that she “want[ed] to be clear what this is,” she said.

“This is a Facebook Research app. It’s very clear to the people who participated. It’s completely opt-in. There is a rigorous consent flow and people are compensated. It’s a market research program.”

“Now, that said, we know we have to work to do to make sure people’s data is protected… It’s your information. You put it on Facebook, you need to know what is happening.”

“In this case, the people who chose to participate in this program did.” She said.

It is alleged that “Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research App and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy, so the social network can decrypt and analyse their phone activity, a Tech Crunch investigation confirms.”

The installation of the research app is said to give Facebook access to private messages, browsing history and in-app messages on any device the app is installed on.

TechCrunch reported that “Since 2016, Facebook ahs been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month, plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android ‘Facebook Research’ app.”

Sheryl Sandberg also alluded to the fact that Facebook “definitely have work to do” but concluded that “we’ve done it”, which some remain sceptical of.

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