[Update: On Thursday, Apple reinstated some of Facebook’s developer certificates.]
Apple has revoked Facebook’s developer certificates over a controversial data-gathering project, shutting down the company’s ability to distribute beta and internal iOS apps. That means employees can’t access lunch menus, use early versions of Facebook apps, including Instagram and Messenger, or reportedly catch a bus to and from work.
“This is probably one of the worse things that can happen to the company internally,” one employee told Business Insider.
“FYI: it’s total chaos over inside FB internal channels right now,” Mike Isaac of the New York Times wrote on Twitter this morning. “half the people are like ‘uhhhh why do none of my apps work'”
they rely on this stuff for things as simple as taking the bus
congrats Facebook Research for invoking the ire of all your colleagues stuck at the shuttle stop this morning
— rat king (@MikeIsaac) January 30, 2019
The clampdown comes in response to news that Facebook was sidestepping Apple’s security protocols by paying teens $20 a month to install a “social media research” app on their iPhones that monitors pretty much everything they do online, including their browsing history, their encrypted phone conversations, and online purchases.
That app, TechCrunch revealed yesterday, was distributed outside of the App Store through Apple’s enterprise program, which allows developers to use special certificates to install powerful apps onto iPhones. However, those apps are only supposed to be internal, used by a company’s employees, not customers.
In a statement to Fast Company, Apple said that Facebook was in “clear breach of their agreement.” While Facebook said late last night that it would shut down the iOS app, Apple is apparently not satisfied and revoked Facebook’s developer licenses on Wednesday.
“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple,” the company said. “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.”
Without the certificate, Facebook’s internal apps no longer work on Apple’s iOS. That means that Facebook would not be able to test its iOS apps internally. It’s also why Facebook’s iPhone-using employees now reportedly can’t even find out what’s on the lunch menu.
Facebook employees told Business Insider that their colleagues are “pissed” and “angry,” and have cast blame on Apple or on their own colleagues. One Facebook employee told the publication that “there are conspiracy theories running rampant,” including the idea that “Apple hates Facebook so it is their attempt to take Facebook down.”
“We can’t aspire for good press while continuing to not play by the rules,” another employee wrote in an internal discussion on the company’s Workplace app.
On the anonymous employee-discussion app Blind, Mashable reported, some Facebook employees argued that Apple’s move was an attempt to distract from an embarrassing FaceTime bug that went public earlier this week. “Anything to take the heat off the FaceTime security breach,” read one employee comment.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about internal difficulties caused by Apple’s move. In a memo to employees obtained by Business Insider, Facebook said it’s “working closely with Apple to reinstate our most critical internal apps immediately.”
On Tuesday, the company defended the research app, saying that it was up front with participants about how their data would be collected. “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored,” the company said in a statement to Fast Company.
Facebook hasn’t said what will become of the Android version of the program, referred to publicly as “Project Atlas.” By Wednesday afternoon, however, a sign-up page for the project on the app testing platform Applause had been updated to say that participant referrals were now closed.
“We are currently not accepting any new referrals for our research program,” the page said, without mentioning Facebook. “We will notify you when we re-open the program to new referrals and new participants over the coming months.”
(On Wednesday Google apologized for misusing Apple’s developer certificates and said it would shut down a similar app it was using to collect user data after TechCrunch revealed Google’s own research program.)
Apple has made user privacy a selling point of its products and services, and CEO Tim Cook has been openly critical of Facebook’s data-collection practices. Yanking Facebook’s developer certificates—probably the largest such action Apple has taken on any developer—is likely to escalate tensions between the two companies. Still, Apple remains a major distributor of the Facebook app via the App Store, where the company’s Instagram and Messenger are currently ranked as the 5th and 9th most popular free apps.
While Apple looks to some like Facebook’s strictest privacy regulator at the moment, lawmakers have increased their calls for regulation in recent weeks. Following TechCrunch‘s report, Senator Mark Warner sent a stern letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg with a list of questions about the company’s data gathering practices, and Senator Ed Markey vowed to reintroduce legislation to make it illegal for companies to pay children to hand over their data.
“It is inherently manipulative to offer teens money in exchange for their personal information when younger users don’t have a clear understanding of how much data they’re handing over and how sensitive it is,” he said in a statement. His concerns also extended to adult users, he said: “Consumers deserve simple and clear explanations of what data is being collected and how it being used.” —with Alex Pasternack