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Google distributed a private app that monitored how people use their iPhones, in much the same way that Facebook did — and got in trouble for. Google’s app, reported today by TechCrunch, rewards users with gift cards for letting Google collect information on their internet usage. The app has since been disabled.
The app relied on Apple’s enterprise program, which allows for the distribution of internal apps within a company. That could be a problem: Apple says these apps should only be used by a company’s employees, and companies that violate the policy could be banned, having all their internal apps disabled. That’s exactly what happened to Facebook today.
Google’s app, called Screenwise Meter, is part of a program that’s been around since 2012, which first started tracking household web access through a Chrome extension and a special Google-provided tracking router. Screenwise is open to anyone above 18, but allows users 13 and up to join the program if they’re in the same household; that’s different than Facebook’s tracking app, which specifically targeted people between the ages of 13 and 25.
Though both Facebook’s Research app and Google’s Screenwise apps are fully opt-in, recent privacy issues have put the spotlight on tech companies’ vast collection of user data. The apps aren’t necessarily malicious since users must consent to join the programs, but $20 a month from Facebook or a couple gift cards from Google in exchange for total access to all your data is, as our Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton argues, “a bad bargain for participants.”
The question is whether Apple will enforce a similar kind of punishment on Google as it has on Facebook. This morning, Apple shut down Facebook’s ability to run and distribute internal iOS apps, denying distribution to the pre-release version of Facebook, Instagram, and more. In a statement about Facebook, Apple said “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked.”
A Google spokesperson told The Verge, “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. 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.”
We’ve reached out to Apple for comment.
Updated January 30th, 2019 5:33pm ET: Google has disabled the app following press coverage. This story has been updated to reflect that Google has stopped distributing the app.