This week a high-profile report in TechCrunch revealed that Facebook has been quietly paying teenagers and adults to download a market research app that is capable of tracking nearly everything the user does with their phone. Facebook relied on third-party beta testing sites to promote and market its research app. It didn’t mention it on its official website. Facebook also seemed to fail to mention the existence of Facebook Research to its front line customer service reps.
Two years ago, one confused Facebook user asked the company’s help desk (via its official customer service forum) if a pitch to participate in the Facebook Research program was a scam. He attached an image of the email he received from Facebook’s partner Applause. Here’s how the Facebook customer service rep, Audrey H., wrote back:
It sounds like the email or notification you saw is likely a scam. Spammers and scammers sometimes create phony emails or posts that look like they’re from Facebook. These notices can be very convincing. If an email or post looks strange, don’t click any of the links in it or open any attachments, and please report it to us.
TechCrunch’s scoop has been picked up and built on by countless media outlets over the past two days, and many of them make passing references to Nielsen’s market research practice since Facebook said it also uses apps to track online behavior. When responding to TechCrunch’s report, Facebook also pointed to Nielsen as an example of another company who uses apps for tracking online behavior. It’s true that Nielsen’s Mobile Panel App shares quite a bit in common with what we know about Facebook Research, but there are at least five differences between the two companies’ approaches to mobile behavior tracking.
Nielsen Mobile Panel does not allow minors
While many Nielsen research services include data from minors, its mobile panel does not. The membership agreement that Nielsen requires everyone to review before signing up for its Nielsen Mobile Panel makes clear that only adults, 18 years or older, can participate. In its membership agreement, Nielsen makes clear: “If Nielsen reasonably believes that you are under 18 years of age then your participation in the Research may be denied or terminated at any time without notice.”
The Facebook Research app encouraged anyone between the ages of 13 and 35 to participate, but it required those 13 to 17 to have their parents sign a form of consent. Facebook also used ads on Instagram and Snapchat to target teenager participants. Facebook told TechCrunch that only 5 percent of Facebook Research users were under the age of 18 and all of them provided consent forms signed by their parents.
Facebook used third parties to market Facebook Research and used a workaround to distribute it to iPhone users
Nielsen markets mobile panel openly as its own program with terms and conditions as well as privacy policies clearly laid out on its own corporate website. Nielsen also distributes is mobile app through Apple’s AppStore, which means it had to go through Apple’s own review process.
Facebook broke Apple’s rules and distributed Facebook Research to consumers by using a workaround distribution channel that Apple offers companies looking to get internal apps onto their employees’ phones. Facebook used this backdoor to onboard consumers to an app that Apple had never reviewed. What’s more, Facebook Research was marketed exclusively by third-party beta testing sites like Centercode’s BetaBound and Applause’s uTest. The app was typically called either Facebook Research or Project Atlas, but it was not disclosed in marketing materials that it was a program for Facebook itself. An installation guide from Applause states definitively: “The company that is operating this project is Applause.”
Nielsen Mobile Panel is less invasive than Facebook Research
It’s not clear which specific information Facebook tracks with its Research app, but the app required users to give it Root Access to their devices, which means it could feasibly track everything the device does. Here’s how one of Facebook’s third-party distributors explained the scope of the data tracking for the Research app (emphasis Scatterplot’s):
“By installing the software, you’re giving our client permission to collect data from your phone that will help them understand how you browse the internet, and how you use the features in the apps you’ve installed . . . This means you’re letting our client collect information such as which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them, data about your activities and content within those apps, as well as how other people interact with you or your content within those apps. You are also letting our client collect information about your internet browsing activity (including the websites you visit and data that is exchanged between your device and those websites) and your use of other online services. There are some instances when our client will collect this information even where the app uses encryption, or from within secure browser sessions.”
TechCrunch also reported that the level of access the app has allows it to potentially track private messages in social media apps, chats from instant messaging apps, photos or videos sent to others, emails, web searches, browsing activity, and even location data.
The Nielsen Mobile Panel app will also track dozens of different things participants do with their phones, but the company makes clear in its member agreement that there are a number of things that Nielsen will not track or collect.
Please note that the Software will not track, collect or store the content of any personal communications such as the content of phone calls, text messages or emails or the names of any recipients or senders to your mobile device. No personal data identifying individuals or other persons from any directory such as a mobile device phonebook or other directory applications including your email and text directories of addressee will be collected…
In that the Software will also track and collect the URLs of the websites you may visit (although not the specific content of the pages of those websites when you are visiting) the Usage Data may therefore contain data which may indicate your personal preferences or interests or reveal by inference sensitive personal matters such as racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade-union membership and health or sex life, and you expressly accept that this may be the case and that such data may be processed by Nielsen.
Again, it is unclear what Facebook Research does and doesn’t track, but its capabilities are certain. Nielsen’s member agreement takes pains to note which personal information it believes to be out-of-bounds. Facebook should make clear where its data-gathering stops too.
Facebook Research requires root access
Facebook Research requires participants to give its app root access to their device, which allows it to decrypt and analyze their mobile activity. That level of access enabled TechCrunch to list what the app was capable of tracking. Nielsen Mobile Panel does not require root access, but it does reserve the right to use a VPN to collect and store data.
Facebook Research offers more money in rewards
Nielsen Mobile Panel participants can earn up to $50 worth of rewards a year. Those rewards are redeemable on Nielsen’s online rewards store, which offers electronics like TVs and digital cameras as well as gift cards to Starbucks, Amazon, and Target.
Facebook Research offered participants varying incentives to sign up and stick with it. Since Facebook relied on third-parties to promote its tracking app, the incentives ranged but started at $5 to sign-up and typically included a $20-a-month incentive to continue on. Participants were also given referral codes and earned more money if they managed to get others to sign up using it.
Apple shut down Facebook Research for iOS but the Android version lives on
Shortly after the TechCrunch report surfaced, Apple pulled the plug on Facebook’s research app. Facebook broke its agreement with Apple by distributing the Facebook Research app to consumers via a channel Apple set up for companies to send internal apps out to employees. As of this writing, the Android version of Facebook Research appears to remain active.