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Main » Apple revokes Facebook's ability to deploy apps internally amid privacy scandal dispute

Apple revokes Facebook's ability to deploy apps internally amid privacy scandal dispute

31 January 2019

The app, Facebook Research, appears to be largely similar to Facebook's controversial VPN app Onavo, and shares much of the same code, according to security expert Will Strafach, who was asked to investigate by TechCrunch. In February 2018, Facebook launched a VPN app called Onavo Protect, which was promoted as helping to keep your mobile data safe. Aimed at people aged 13 to 25, the app, according to Facebook, is created to study mobile usage habits. This allowed Facebook to bypass the App store by treating the users as app developers testing an unfinished app. Apple limits the use of these developer apps to employees of the app creator, but Facebook reportedly violated this policy. The company was distributing the app outside of Apple's App Store, using a special program created to help companies install internal apps on their employee's phones.

After the TechCrunch's report, Facebook ended the program on all Apple devices. The incident between Apple and Facebook is the latest twist in a nasty tech narrative that we highlighted in a cover story almost a year ago.

Apple has long sought to distinguish itself from the rest of the tech pack in its approach to privacy, and Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has particularly taken a harsh view of Facebook. Still, Apple remains a major distributor of the Facebook app via the App Store, where the company's Instagram and Messenger are now ranked as the 5th and 9th most popular free apps.

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A Facebook spokesperson says the program was not "secret", as some early reports suggested, and that it was opt-in.

Whether Facebook users who signed up for this program truly understood its implications is up for debate. In some advertisements for the app displayed on Instagram and Snapchat, teens were targeted to participate in a paid social media research study, and if they tried to sign up were asked to get their parent's approval through a Web form.

While Facebook has said it will close down the iOS branch of its Research program, it is not clear if this is being done voluntarily, or whether Apple has leaned on the company.

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"We can't aspire for good press while continuing to not play by the rules", another employee wrote in an internal discussion on the company's Workplace app. Apple is not pleased that Facebook used this program to send powerful apps to users, and Facebook's decision to pull the research app isn't enough to satisfy Apple. This type of data gathering can not be done using an App Store app.

The VPN-based app is similar to one Facebook used to offer called Onavo Protect, which also logged and forward user activity to Facebook, but that app was specifically banned by Apple previous year over privacy concerns. Going forward, if Apple doesn't change its mind and provide Facebook with new certificates, the company will have a lot of trouble distributing these new features internally before rolling them out to the public.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently penned a 1,000 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal jumping to the defense of his company's business practices. "I still don't know how to best articulate how absolutely floored I am by Facebook thinking they can get away with this".

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Apple revokes Facebook's ability to deploy apps internally amid privacy scandal dispute