Facebook's data harvesting app killed by Apple — taking Facebook's internal apps with it

Facebook gets caught abusing Apple's Enterprise Developer Program - and the consequences wreak havoc amongst its employees

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Facebook has officially passed beyond satire. It clearly has no robust system internally for checking if a move it takes is morally or ethically justified - and if it violates agreements with partners. This latest move, exposed by Techcrunch, is just comically arrogant and immoral of Facebook:

Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms.

That "may be a violation of Apple policy" quickly turned into "a clear violation of Apple policy". Facebook was abusing Apple's Enterprise Developer Program – which allows you to create apps that are only usable by your own corporate workforce - to do this. And Apple was not amused. The company gave this statement to Recode:

Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.

And the results were, well, comical:

Apple has shut down Facebook’s ability to distribute internal iOS apps, from early releases of the Facebook app to basic tools like a lunch menu. A person familiar with the situation tells The Verge that early versions of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and other pre-release “dogfood” (beta) apps have stopped working, as have other employee apps, like one for transportation. Facebook is treating this as a critical problem internally, we’re told, as the affected apps simply don’t launch on employees’ phones anymore.

The core problem with Facebook as a corporate entity is twofold:

  • It behaves as it rules don't apply to it
  • it assumes there will be no consequences for its actions (and so far, has been proved right in that)

Rather ironically, Apple might have delivered a more serious chastisement to Facebook than any government has yet managed.

Photo by Sarah Marshall, and used under a Creative Commons license


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.