Google’s ‘Screenwise Meter’ Collects User Data in a Similar Way to Facebook’s Research VPN iOS App [Updated]

BY Evan Selleck

Published 30 Jan 2019

A lot of companies out there collect data. That’s an understood reality. However, doing so in a shady way isn’t a good look for any of them.

Update: That was fast. Google has published a statement on the matter, which you can read below. It basically boils down to “we shouldn’t have done this thing we’ve been doing for years”. As a result of being discovered, Google has also pulled the app from the iOS App Store, disabling it entirely. Here is the statement:

“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.”

The original article continues below.

Unfortunately, companies that are open about their data collection still find ways to go about things in less-than-ideal ways. For instance, Facebook was recently discovered to have gone against Apple’s App Store policies, specifically as they relate to enterprise certificates, to gather as much data as possible from a wide range of device owners. While they did that, they were offering up $20 gift cards to participants as long as they were willing to basically hand over all of their data.

Now, as reported on Wednesday by TechCrunch, it turns out that Google is doing the same thing. This particular app is called “Screenwise Meter”, and it invites users from the age of 18 and up to participate. You can be as young as 13 and be part of the program if you are part of a family group. Those who do sign up will get a special code and go through a registration process that uses a specific Enterprise Certificate. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a very similar method that Facebook used for its own app.

That discovery of Facebook’s methodology to all of this led Apple to pull the certificate for Facebook’s internal apps based on the same certificate. Facebook has since shut down the controversial VPN iOS app, but is still working with Apple to try and bring it back.

The worst part of Google’s infringement here is that it has been going on for years, per the report:

“First launched in 2012, Screenwise lets users earn gift cards for sideloading an Enterprise Certificate-based VPN app that allows Google to monitor and analyze their traffic and data. Google has rebranded the program as part of the Cross Media Panel and Google Opinion Rewards programs that reward users for installing tracking systems on their mobile phone, PC web browser, router, and TV.”

For its part, Google is upfront about being directly involved, along with the rewards. There is also a “Guest Mode” that can be enabled, which does limit tracking and data monitoring.

That bit aside, though, this app does appear to violate Apple’s policies in the same way that Facebook Research’s VPN iOS app did. It will be interesting to see what happens next, especially with Apple’s swift action against Facebook. With the two apps handling in the same way, it stands to reason, and even expect, that Screenwise Meter is going to get axed from the App Store in short order.

[via TechCrunch]