On June 11, Facebook launched a new market research app — Study from Facebook — that will recruit selected users for Facebook’s market research, and compensate them for participating in the programme. It is currently available only in USA and India on the Google Play Store. Facebook has once again partnered with beta-testing agency Applause to manage the logistics of the programme, including registration process, compensation to participants, and customer support. It had earlier teamed up with Applause for the controversial Facebook Research VPN app as well.

How it will work?

The programme is currently open only to people who are 18 years and above in US and India. All participants will be able to opt out at any time. However, the company did not clarify to MediaNama if, after opting out, the user’s data is deleted or retained and used by Facecbook.

According to Facebook’s official blog, here’s what will happen:

  1. Facebook will run ads to encourage selected people to participate in the market research programme.
  2. On clicking the ad, the user will have the option to register, and if they qualify, they will be invited to download the app (MediaNama was able to download this app, but participation is by invitation only.).
  3. As users sign up, they will see a description of how the app works, and what information they will share with Facebook if they want to participate.
  4. Anyone who contributed to the research using the app will be compensated. The company told us that all participants would be compensated on a monthly basis through PayPal. Despite our query, Facebook did not reveal how much Americans and Indians would be compensated, and if there were any bonuses, referrals, or other incentives for users.
Screenshots of Facebook Study App

Screenshots from Facebook Study, currently only available on Android. Credit: Anjali Agrawal for MediaNama

When we asked the company why the app was available only in India and USA, the company replied, “India and the United States are two of Facebook’s largest markets so we decided to focus this effort on better understanding what apps people use in those countries first.”

What information will Facebook collect?

Facebook has promised this time around that it will collect ‘the minimum amount of information needed to help us [them] build better products’. The goal, as TechCrunch says, will ostensibly be to find out ‘which other competing apps and features Facebook should buy, copy, or ignore’. The company will periodically remind participants that they are a part of the programme, and will have the option to review the information they share with Facebook.

Here’s the information Facebook will collect and analyse:

  • Apps installed on the phone
  • Amount of time spent using the apps
  • Participant’s country, device and network type
  • App activity names, which may show the names of app features participants use

MediaNama inquired how Facebook would use this collected information in product development. The company replied that it would help them answer questions about “which products and services … people use[d] on their mobile devices”, if “the usage of these products and services differ[ed] by country”, and if there were “seasonality effects that dr[o]ve the popularity of certain categories of apps”.

Here’s what the company has said it definitely won’t do:

  • It will not collect user IDs, passwords, or participant’s content, such as photos, videos, or messages.
  • Information from the app won’t be sold to third parties or used to target ads.
  • Information won’t be added to a participant’s Facebook account if they have one.

In response to MediaNama’s query about what user data Applause would have access too, Facebook said, “Our partner will collect minimal information like contact details for payment and demographic details including age and country. These demographic details are important to make sure that the right people are signing up for the research — they’re in the right country and are 18+.” When we asked who would be responsible for safeguarding data collected by Applause, the company said, “We’ll retain data in accordance with our Data Use Policy.” Despite our query, Facebook did not clarify if Applause would have any access to users’ usage data that Facebook Study will collect.

How will Facebook verify participants’ age?

We asked Facebook about how they would ensure that users’ are 18 years and older, in light of how Facebook Research app used teenagers’ data (detailed below and more information can be found here). Here’s Facebook’s response:

We are taking many steps to ensure that only people 18 or above are participating in the market research program:

  • Participants must share their age when they’re registering for the research
  • Participants must have a PayPal account (PayPal requires their customers to be 18 or over to open an account)
  • If participants have a Facebook account we will verify their age with their stated age on their Facebook account.

Facebook’s fraught history with market research

First, in June 2018, Apple banned Facebook’s Onavo Protect app and removed it in August 2018 for violating its App Store policies. Facebook had acquired Onavo for $120 million in 2014. The VPN app allowed Facebook access to users’ app usage and gave the company unparalleled insight into which apps were popular amongst users and which weren’t. In fact, Facebook used data collected through Onavo to spot WhatsApp’s growth and justify its $19 billion acquisition in 2014, TechCrunch had reported. Justifying the removal, Apple had then, in a statement to TechCrunch, reiterated its App Story policy and said, ‘we made it explicitly clear that apps should not collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing and must make it clear what user data will be collected and how it will be used’.

Then, in January 2019, TechCrunch reported that since 2016 Facebook had secretly been paying people in the US and India to install a Facebook Research VPN that lets the company view all of a user’s phone and web activity. The Facebook Research VPN used Onavo code and paid teenagers and adults ($20/month plus bonuses for referrals) for downloading the app and giving it root access to network policy, in direct contravention of Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy. As a result, Apple blocked the Facebook Research VPN on January 29 itself. Google followed suit and pulled the Onavo app from its Play Store on February 21. However, the Facebook Research app still runs on Android, but doesn’t recruit any new users.

The Facebook Research project, nicknamed ‘Project Atlas’, was administered through beta-testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement. It is only after users had begun the sign-up process and signed NDAs that they were told about Facebook’s involvement. uTest’s ads for Facebook Research on Snapchat and Instagram actively sought 13-17 years old teens. Applause, on the other hand, sought users between 13-35 years, with parental consent for users between 13 years and 17 years. For Facebook Study, the company has again partnered with Applause for logistical support, despite what happened last year.

Apple and Facebook have often represented two ends of the technological spectrum when it comes to data collection. These two incidents amplified that divide. Apple CEO Tim Cook has often criticised Facebook’s data collection practices. In fact, at its 2019 WWDC, Apple launched a new sign-in service for all its apps that would mask users’ email addresses using a relay address and not track their activities or use targeted advertising. This would compete with Facebook and Google’s sign-in services — two companies that have had a chequered history when it comes to protecting users’ data.

What’s different this time?

To be honest, not much. Facebook is only being upfront about the fact that it is collecting data in the background. Furthermore, despite the backlash to Facebook Research VPN earlier this year, it is notable that Facebook has once again partnered with Applause for the Facebook Study app. It is significant that Facebook Study isn’t available on Apple’s App Store, given the latter’s lack of leeway for apps that compromise users’ privacy and data, as Facebook itself discovered earlier this year. Facebook did not respond to our query about if it had plans to make Facebook Study available on Apple’s App Store.That should be the biggest red flag for anyone who is thinking of earning quick money via Facebook Study.

***Update (June 14, 2019 3:40 pm): We have updated the article with responses from Facebook (in italicised, bold text). Originally published on June 12, 2019.