Facebook will compensate Android users for running an app that constantly reports which other apps you're using

  • Facebook has a new app, “Study by Facebook,” that will let the social network see which apps and devices you use – and compensate you in return.
  • It’s a new iteration of a previous app, called Facebook Research, which it quietly operated starting in 2016, paying users $US20/month to send this kind of data back to the social network.
  • Facebook Research was at the center of controversy earlier this year – first, it was reported that participants may not have known what they were in for, and second, it found itself at the center of a spat with Apple after the social network side-stepped App Store policies to distribute the app on iPhone.
  • This time out, Facebook is promising more transparency and user control. However, it seems that this app will only be on Android.

Facebook has released a new way for the company to gather data on which apps and devices people are using.

The app, known as “Study by Facebook,” was announced by the company on Tuesday to help the social media giant collect more information about smartphone users in the US and India, including which apps are installed on their phones, the time spent on those apps, and their country, device, and network type. By installing this app, users will also offer Facebook access to knowing which features within certain apps they are engaging with most.

Study by Facebook will be available to download in the Google Play Store on Android phones. All participants will be compensated for downloading the app and giving Facebook access to all of that data, though it didn’t offer details on how that will work.

Notably, Study by Facebook is the successor to a controversial app called Facebook Research, which gathered similar data from participants’ devices in exchange for a $US20 gift card per month.

“We believe this work is important to help us improve our products for the people who use Facebook,” says the blog entry. “We also know that this kind of research must be clear about what people are signing up for, how their information will be collected and used, and how to opt out of the research at any time.”

Facebook Research, the predecessor, launched in 2016, and quietly operated under the radar until earlier this year, when TechCrunch reported on the existence of the app, as well as the fact that some teenagers were signed on with the program.

At the time, concerns swirled around Facebook for not properly educating participants on what they had signed up for, though the company said “there was nothing secret” about its Research app, that it “wasn’t spying” on its participants, and that around 5% of all of its users were 13- to 17-years-old and those underage users all had parental approval.

Facebook Research itself had a lot in common with Onavo, a Facebook-owned app that similarly helped the social network keep tabs on what apps and services its users enjoyed.

Facebook reportedly used data from Onavo to see that a video chat app called Houseparty was on the rise – and so it introduced group video calling into Facebook Messenger to undercut that upstart’s biggest feature. However, in 2018, Apple banned Onavo from the App Store, and it was shut down entirely in February of this year.

Still, Facebook found a way: It distributed Facebook Research to iPhone and iPad users via a workaround, taking advantage of a program for business users that lets certain apps skip the App Store and get installed directly on the device.

In the wake of reports of Facebook Research’s existence in January, however, Apple revoked the social network’s access to that business app distribution channel, and the app was no longer available on iPhone, though it continued on Android.

Read more:
Facebook and Apple are arguing over who banned a Facebook app that paid people $US20 a month for complete access to their phones

All of this may be why Facebook says in the blog entry announcing the new “Study by Facebook” that it’s trying to be a responsible steward of all the information you’re consenting to have sent to the tech giant, and that it’s trying to fairly repay participants.

“We’re offering transparency, compensating all participants, and keeping people’s information safe and secure,” Facebook says.

However, it may also be why the blog entry on Tuesday makes no mention of “Study by Facebook” coming to Apple devices – given the history, it’s not clear that it would pass muster with the company’s stringent App Store rules.

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