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Tech companies have been paying users for unprecedented mobile data access

Earlier this week, Facebook was revealed to be running a secret program that paid users between 13 and 35-years-old up to $20 per month to install an application that provided the company near-unrestricted access to their smartphone activity. The social network wasn’t alone in its efforts, as Google has also been engaging in similar data collection practices.

Internally known as “Project Atlas,” Facebook began distributing an application meant for internal purposes to consumers, offering gift cards for participation. After breaking the news, TechCrunch explained that Facebook tried to cover its tracks by running the program through testing services such as Applause, BetaBound and uTest.

According to Guardian Mobile Firewall’s security expert Will Strafach, Facebook’s Research app gives access to private messages across social media and instant messaging apps, photos, videos, emails, search history and even location. Facebook quickly tried to downplay the controversy by stating it had voluntarily removed its Research app from the Apple Store, but it turns out that the company had its license revoked for breaching terms and conditions.

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization,” explained Apple. “Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

Google has been found guilty of the same violation with its Screenwise Meter application, which will now be pulled from iOS devices as a result. Users from the age of 13 could participate, but those below the age of 18 needed to be a part of a family program in order to participate, hinting at parental consent that wasn’t present in Facebook’s Research application.

“The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement to TechCrunch. “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.”

It looks as though both Facebook Research and Screenwise Meter will continue running on Android, despite friction on Apple’s platform.

KitGuru Says: While Facebook Research and Screenwise Meter users undoubtedly have to give consent, the question remains whether giving up that amount of privacy is worth $20 per month. At the very least, neither company hid their intentions to the consumer, which is rare in the long line of controversies we’ve seen so far.

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