Facebook reveals it misreported number of teen users of Research VPN

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Facebook is drawing additional controversy over its Research Program, that collected data on teens through its Onavo VPN app, now that TechCrunch has revealed that the social networking giant misreported the number of users in the program.

When the news initially broke, the company said that “Less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens”. However, this has been proven to be incorrect thanks to Facebook's responses to a letter from US Senator Mark Warner on the issue.

The senator wrote to CEO Mark Zuckberg about how its Research Program specifically targeted teens and their mobile data usage which it obtained by paying users to install a VPN which spied on them.

Facebook's VP of US public policy Kevin Martin responded to the senator's questions, saying:

“At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.” 

Controversial cover up

Basically Facebook provided the media with the percentage of teens in its Research Program when TechCrunch first discovered it as opposed to the total percentage of teens who had been involved throughout the lifespan of the program.

The social network faced further scrutiny when Senator Martin grilled them on the issue of parental consent forms. According to Facebook, all participants under 18 signed parental consent forms when first joining the program but in reality the teens who participated just had to check a box to claim that they had parental consent which is quite different from how it first explained the registration process.

So to recap, in addition to lying about the nature of its Research Program to begin with, the company also knowingly targeted teens without their parents' permission.

At a time when Facebook is still dealing with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and was recently slammed by the UK government, the company will likely have to address its Research Program formally to show regulators and consumers alike that it should be trusted with user data at all.

Via TechCrunch

Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.