In a tactical bid to get even more info on people’s online habits, Facebook has been quietly paying teens and young adults to install a program that allows the company to track all of their phone and web activity, according to a TechCrunch investigation published earlier this week.
The report details how the tech giant recruited users ages 13–35 to install and run its “Facebook Research” app, a VPN designed to monitor all data passing through a user’s phone, including private messages (text and images!), internet searches and browsing, and, in some cases, continuously updated location info, according to a security expert TechCrunch consulted. In exchange, the company, working through third-party administrators, offered participants e-gift cards on the order of $20 a month, plus extra for referring others. Notably, the Research app seemed to be a repackaging of the Onavo Protect app, a different Facebook program that Apple banned last year for violating its rules on data collection by developers.
The story has already prompted Apple to block the Facebook Research VPN app on its devices. It also spurred some fierce responses from lawmakers, particularly in reaction to the reporting that suggested the company was especially eager to get teens (theoretically, with parental permission) to use the invasive program. Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted, “Wait a minute. Facebook PAID teenagers to install a surveillance device on their phones without telling them it gave Facebook power to spy on them? Some kids as young as 13. Are you serious?” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal sent TechCrunch a statement noting, “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.”
Amid the backlash, the revelations prompted us to ask: Who would download this thing?
Possibly a bored high schooler who doesn’t understand what’s happening and just wants to make some extra money. The third-party Snapchat and Instagram ads TechCrunch found for the program targeted teens with messages like “We are looking for participants for a paid social media research study. Click below to learn more!” They don’t immediately mention Facebook, and the initial language makes the program seem like it might be part of some benign study conducted by, say, a university psychology department—a classic way for students to earn spending money in exchange for producing data.
But the answer is broader than teens being duped into giving up their privacy in exchange for scoring $20 a month. For example, digging into the r/BeerMoney subreddit—which is devoted to online money-making opportunities—I found threads where users discussed and shared referral codes for the Facebook Research VPN who had at least some idea of what they were getting into. Many seemed perfectly aware of all the digital activity they would be giving up, and that Facebook would be benefiting from it.
When I reached out to users, some told me that—with all of the corporate tracking already sucking up data on our digital lives—they didn’t have much expectation of privacy to begin with, and at least wanted to be able to make some money off of a company tracking their online activities. They said they realized the VPN was collecting all of this data. They didn’t care. Moreover, amid the myriad of low-paying online opportunities to sell various bits of data that r/BeerMoney users have evaluated, getting comped $20 a month for an app that runs in the background might have stood out as a competitive price.
One user, who identified themselves as 32 years old and reported that they had netted $30 in gift cards with the app, told me via email, “I’m not too worried about that data because I’m almost certain these companies collect that stuff anyway,” and that, “Google and Amazon know a lot already.” The user explained they do a lot of little paid tasks to earn money, like downloading apps or completing surveys. It isn’t significant, they said, but acts as a little bonus to their household income, which they told me is $60,000 a year. “Lately most of my earnings have gone to simple things (groceries, MetroCards, date night),” they wrote.
Others on Reddit expressed similar sentiments. “I have been enjoying the small amount of money. It helps me buy frivolous things like new games which I may not get as often,” wrote another user, who said they were perplexed as to why reporters like me were “asking about why I would give up so much data.” They wrote they thought the program was upfront in “clearly stat[ing] they farm data for money.” (Perhaps fittingly, when I messaged this person for more information, they offered to answer for $25—a deal which journalistic ethics compelled me to decline.)
Not everyone seemed as unquestioningly enthusiastic about the trade. One user, who said they were 40 (which put them over the age that Facebook was recruiting for), posted that the VPN was “quite obviously some shady shit,” and said they had purposefully installed it on an old junk phone they didn’t use anymore. But in the face of all of the attention Facebook Research was given after the TechCrunch investigation, others seemed more concerned about another possibility: that the program might be shut down.
“Any similar services that will harvest my data for cash?” wrote one Redditor.
This is, of course, just a small sample of the participants that Facebook managed to recruit for this data-mining operation. And people who participate in a Reddit forum specifically devoted to internet money-making schemes are likely to be savvier (or at least more likely to see posts from people who are) about the trade-offs they’re making than someone who comes to the Research app through an Instagram ad. We still don’t have numbers on how many people participated in the program. Nor do we have much in the way of breakdowns about the ages or backgrounds of those that actually signed up, each of which could factor in to an individual’s ability to understand what they were agreeing to do. In a statement to CNBC, a Facebook spokesperson claimed that “less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens,” though it’s not clear how many underage individuals that might represent, or if it was possible that some lied about their age. But, it seems, at least some among them were semi-knowledgeable adults.
For those willing, there are actually a whole host of apps that offer compensation in exchange for collecting your personal data, some of which have been helpfully aggregated on the r/BeerMoney forum. The apps pay between $1 (for an app that tracks your location) and upward of $60 a month (for an Android app called Phone Paycheck that, according to the poster, “isn’t necessarily stalking you like all the other apps,” but instead claims to use your phone’s processing power). Among these, most of which fall at the lower end of this compensation range, the Research app might seem like a reasonable deal. Facebook also isn’t the only tech giant in the game: Google had, until Wednesday, been running a data-hoovering program similar to Facebook Research called Screenwise Meter, which offered participants the opportunity to earn gift cards in exchange for allowing the company track various forms of their digital activity via an app or Google-provided router.
If this still sounds anomalous, consider the massive popularity of MoviePass, which essentially traded your location for a few film tickets. Or that of Amazon Echos and Google Homes, which aren’t supposed to listen unless first spoke to, but have experienced snafus in which they eavesdrop on conversations. Or of all the other seemingly gratis or low-cost services (Search engines! Social networks! Un-paywalled digital media! Free apps!) that fall under the Faustian bargain of “if you’re not paying, you’re the product.” Some of the savvier among us might approach using such services with caution. But I personally have, in the past year, willingly used both MoviePass and an Amazon Echo (among others), and find it hard to come up with a tangible reason not to indulge in the discounts and convenience they afford.
The dollar sign that programs like Facebook Research put in front of its exchange made it easier to see the kinds of bad deals users are being offered (and Facebook Research was superlatively bad for the sheer scope of data it collected). But the reality is we’re awash in bad deals. In a landscape so full of companies prying their way into your online and offline life, I can see the nihilistic logic behind participants who said they understood what they were giving away to Facebook, and said they decided they preferred hard compensation to no compensation. I can also see it in my own rationalization that I’m willing to give up some privacy in exchange for seeing trashy movies in theaters at a steep discount, or for being able to request, “Hey Alexa, play ocean sounds” as I’m falling asleep.
As security expert Will Strafach, speaking about the Facebook Research VPN, told TechCrunch, “[M]ost users are going to be unable to reasonably consent to this regardless of any agreement they sign, because there is no good way to articulate just how much power is handed to Facebook when you do this.” (And not just your power: It’s unclear whether the program required participants to get consent from the other individuals whose communications they might be compromising by agreeing to share private messages, chats, and emails.) Like so many smaller deals we make with tech companies for the sake of savings of convenience, even though we may go in with surface-level understanding of what we’re consenting to, it can be just plain hard to grasp the consequences of signing up.
To me, this is the most startling thing about the Facebook Research VPN and many of the other digital privacy trade-offs we make. In many cases, we aren’t people unwittingly being spied on anymore. Instead, we’ve become so numb to the feeling of losing our privacy, so helpless in the face of a pervasive, aggressive industry that those in power have failed to rein in, that it can be hard to feel pain when we give up even more.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.