- Facebook created an app that will pay adult mobile consumers for sharing information about the apps they use, the company announced in a blog post Tuesday. The social media giant's new app, called Study from Facebook, is different from two previous consumer research apps that faced criticism for privacy violations and not properly disclosing how it would track teenagers' mobile usage.
- Facebook said Study will collect information about which apps people are using and for how long, but it won't collect user IDs, passwords or content such as photos, videos or messages. The company also won't sell the information to third parties, add it to account profiles of Facebook users or use it to target ads.
- The Study app is only available for adults in the U.S. and India via the Google Play store, with plans to expand it to other countries in the future. Facebook didn't disclose how it will compensate participants for sharing their information.
Study from Facebook is the company's latest strategy to gather information about mobile users, which has been a key part of determining what features it should add to its stable of apps. Those apps, which include its main social network, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, routinely dominate the rankings of the most downloaded apps. Facebook wants to maintain that dominance, although it now is among the tech giants that face antitrust scrutiny for possible anticompetitive behavior.
By copying the popular features of other apps like Snapchat and Houseparty, Facebook has sought to ward off rivals while boosting engagement on its various social platforms. The strategy has contributed to the success of the company, which has 2.38 billion users worldwide and is estimated to control about 20% of the global digital ad market.
Data collection is central to Facebook's ability to deliver highly targeted audiences to advertisers. However, repeated data-sharing scandals have hurt the company's reputation and led to massive legal liabilities. Faced with growing criticism, CEO Mark Zuckerberg this year has pledged several times to make privacy a central feature of Facebook's apps and has even called for stronger privacy laws. The Study app appears to align with that vision by collecting data from consenting U.S. adults while also keeping them informed about what information is gathered and how it will be used.
Facebook's past efforts to gather data on mobile users include apps that monitor their behavior with virtual private networks (VPNs). The company recently paid people, including underage smartphone users, to install a "Facebook Research" VPN that monitored their activities. However, Facebook shuttered the project after a TechCrunch report triggered a firestorm of protest and led Apple to block the app from its App Store.
Before that, Facebook had acquired a company called Onavo that gave mobile users free VPN service in exchange for sharing their smartphone activities. Criticism of its data-gathering policies this year led Facebook to remove Onavo from the Google Play store and shut it down. Apple already had banned the app in August for violating its data-collection policies. It's understandable that the new Study app isn't available on Apple's App Store as the iPhone maker continues to tout the superiority of its data-privacy protections compared with those of Facebook and Google.
While Study from Facebook appears to be more forthright in explaining what kind of data the company plans to collect, consumers will likely be wary of trusting the social network amid its repeated privacy scandals. Facebook faces a possible $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission for violating a data-privacy agreement, although some lawmakers accused the agency of lax enforcement of consent orders and demanded a harsher punishment. The FTC last year launched an investigation into Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that the company had improperly shared the data of more than 80 million people. It remains to be seen whether the Study app will gain acceptance or end up in the dustbin aside the company's past data-collection efforts.