Apple says it bans Facebook's search app that collects users' personal information

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Facebook is at the center of another scandal about privacy – and this time users have not only done wrong. It has also made Apple angry.

The short version: Apple says that Facebook has broken an agreement that it has signed with Apple by publishing a "research" app for iPhone users that allows the social giant to collect all kinds of personal information about those users, TechCrunch reported Tuesday. With the app, Facebook was able to track the app history of users, their private messages and their location data. The research effort of Facebook was reportedly directed at users up to 13 years old.

Starting last summer, apps that collect that kind of data are in violation of Apple's privacy guidelines. That means Facebook could not make this research app available through the App Store, which Apple would have asked for approval.

Instead, Facebook apparently benefited from Apple's "Enterprise Enterprise Program," which allows Apple-approved Apple partners, such as Facebook, to test and distribute apps specifically for their own employees. In those cases, employees can use third-party services to download beta versions of apps that are not available to the general public.

Apple does not rate and approve these apps in the same way as they did for the App Store, because they should only be downloaded by employees who work for the app's creator.

However, Facebook used this program to pay non-employees as much as $ 20 a month to download the research app without Apple's knowledge.

Apple's response, through a PR representative this morning: "We designed our Enterprise Developer program exclusively for the internal distribution of apps within an organization, and Facebook used its membership to distribute an app for collecting data to consumers. , which is a clear violation of their agreement with Apple.Every developer who uses his enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers, has his certificates revoked, which we have done in this case to protect our users and their data. "

Translation: Apple will not let Facebook distribute the app – a fact that Apple probably communicated to Facebook on Tuesday. Apple's statement also states that Facebook & # 39; s "certificates" – plural – have been withdrawn. This means that Facebook currently can not distribute other apps to employees via this developer program, not just the research app.

Prior to Apple's statement, but after the TechCrunch story was broken, Facebook had already said it would end its research program. But it insisted on the idea that it did something wrong in collecting the user data. Facebook says this program has been running since 2016, which may prove that the company did not want to bypass Apple's new policy. However, Facebook did not comment on whether or not to violate Apple's policies by distributing the app through the Developer Enterprise Program.

Here is the statement from Facebook:

Important facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite previous reports, there was nothing & # 39; secret & # 39; going on; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It was not "spying" because all the people who signed up to participate went through a clear entry process to ask for permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teenagers. All with signed parental consent forms.

The most important part of this story may be that Facebook Apple seems to be pissed off, a company that relies on delivering all its apps to iPhone users around the world. It is highly unlikely that Apple would take Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp from the App Store, but it will be telling to see if Apple is trying to punish Facebook in a different way.

The two companies already have a controversial relationship and this will not help.

The story also shows how important it is that Facebook collects data about other apps that people use on their phones. It is a great competitive advantage and collecting this kind of data is not strange for Facebook. The company actually collected similar user data through a separate app called Facebook Onavo Protect, which had just been removed from the App Store in August for violating Apple's guidelines. (It is still available for Android users.)

Onavo is a virtual private network, meaning that users who have downloaded it agree to route their internet traffic through a Facebook server. For example, Facebook can help people check how much data they are using and warn users of problems, for example if their internet connection is not secure & # 39 ;.

But Onavo's true value to Facebook is that it allows the company to collect all kinds of behavioral data from people's phones – such as competing data, such as which apps they use. Data from Onavo helped Facebook execs learn that Snapchat user growth slowed after it had copied Snapchat's popular Stories product, according to the Wall Street Journal. Facebook has also used Onavo to track the growing number of WhatsApp users before the messaging platform was purchased in 2014 for $ 19 billion, BuzzFeed has found.

In other words, there are many reasons why Facebook wants to know which apps people use, which explains why it went so far as to circumvent Apple's App Store guidelines.

It is unclear whether the actual collection of data from Facebook via this research app entails risks for the company. Facebook did users pay for the use of the app. But Facebook is also being investigated by the FTC, which is conducting research into its practices in the field of data privacy. Everything that feels like a fish will certainly attract the attention of regulators.