Facebook's Onavo VPN comes under fire for privacy invasion


Despite its recent appearance in the iOS Facebook app, Onavo Protect isn't new, and was a source of controversy past year when the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook used Onavo-sourced data to determine that usage of the competing Snapchat app was slowing months before Snap announced that fact. We have a full rundown on what VPNs do here, but put simply: a VPN encrypts all your internet traffic and routes it through a server somewhere else.

While many have called the Onavo Protect app as a spyware, others who are unaware might never know that Facebook uses the data from the app for marketing purposes. Typically, a VPN cloaks the user's identity and adds other security features, making it a more secure way to get online, particularly when using public Wi-Fi networks.

Facebook has used this tool for a competitive advantage against other mobile apps.

Recently, users of the Facebook iOS app noticed a link to something labelled Protect within settings. And while the initial excuse for this is to optimise the VPN service, the company also says it'll be using the information to "improve Facebook products". A VPN helps you to stay secure online and keep your browser history from malicious websites and bad actors.

"As part of this process, Onavo collects your mobile data traffic".

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First spotted by TechCrunch, you can find the option as a new menu item in Facebook's iOS apps. This includes info about: your device and its location, apps installed on your device and how often you use those apps, the websites you visit, and the amount of data you use. The Onavo Protect app is now installed on more than 33 million devices, and it's unclear how many of those users know just how much of their data is being sent back to Facebook while it's in use. This...is not that. But in general, we recommend staying away from free options-as always, if you aren't paying for the product, you are the product. Many should, and that should be enough to keep your sensitive info out of the hands of most snoopers.

On Android Onavo also monitors your data usage, but there are better ways to do that as well.

If you'd like to use a VPN service, there are literally tens of thousands to choose from. They make their money on the unlimited paid accounts, which cost $7.99 per month. Dell Cameron, a reporter at Gizmodo, called the VPN service "vampiric" and told readers not to download the app. So essentially the app could be tracking you in nearly every conceivable way.

Exactly how Facebook is using this data obviously isn't clear, although TechCrunch theorizes that the social network could employ it to see which rival apps are swiftly gaining popularity - for potential early acquisitions - or which features of other apps are working well (because it can see how many of its users are flocking to them).