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Google Follows Facebook, Disables iPhone App That Studied User Habits

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Google Follows Facebook, Disables iPhone App That Studied User Habits
Highlights
  • Google had paid some users to install an app to study their digital habit
  • The app is completely voluntary, the search giant said
  • This was a mistake, and we apologise: Google

Alphabet's Google said on Wednesday it disabled an iPhone app that it had paid some users to install to study their digital habits, following a similar move late on Tuesday by social media network Facebook. Google and Facebook had faced criticism from privacy experts for distributing their research apps through a programme iPhone maker Apple had created for companies to distribute apps to employees.

"The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple's developer enterprise programme — this was a mistake, and we apologise. We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We've been upfront with users about the way we use their data in this app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time," Google said in a statement.

In contrast to the Facebook Research app, Google said its Screenwise Meter app never asked users to let the company circumvent network encryption, meaning it is far less intrusive. The app is still available for "registered panelists" via the Google Play store.

Separately, Apple on Wednesday said Facebook can no longer distribute an app that paid users, including teenagers, to extensively track their phone and Web use. Facebook is still permitted to distribute apps through Apple's app store, though such apps are reviewed by Apple ahead of time. And Apple's move Wednesday restricts Facebook's ability to test those apps — including core apps such as Facebook and Instagram — before they are released through the app store.

A report late Tuesday claimed that Facebook paid people about $20 (roughly Rs 1,400) a month to install and use the Facebook Research app. While Facebook says this was done with permission, the company has a history of defining "permission" loosely and obscuring what data it collects.

"I don't think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission," mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. "There is simply no way the users understood this." He said Facebook's claim that users understood the scope of data collection was "muddying the waters."

Written with agency inputs

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