A new feature appeared in the Facebook mobile app for iOS last week – a link labeled “Protect” which drives users to an App Store listing for Onavo Protect. Onavo Protect is a “wireless networking” application, or personal VPN.
As you may know, VPN services encrypt Internet connections to secure them and protect user privacy. But as you also may know, not all VPN services are created equal.
Protection…Of Facebook’s Market Share
As we previously called out, Onavo is a VPN application owned by Facebook. The Israeli company was purchased back in 2013, and in the years since repeatedly been used by Facebook to collect valuable information on user behavior and use of competing applications.
Via Onavo, Facebook can “monitor the online habits of people outside their use of the Facebook app itself.” In plain terms, Facebook uses Onavo to spy on what users are doing outside of their platform. They promise “protection,” but instead monitor behavior to gain insight into competitor app usage and activity they’d otherwise be unable to view. This behavior is one of the more egregious examples of the privacy paradox we have seen.
This means Facebook can inconspicuously, and preemptively, use Onavo to spot new trends across mobile, including which applications are popular and which are not. They can also observe trends in feature usage. Facebook can – and does – use this insight to glean market trends, make product decisions and stay ahead of their competition. Facebook has no interest in protecting user privacy. They are only interested in protecting their market share and profits.
Misleading Messaging Strikes Again
Facebook is similarly dodgy about their affiliation with Onavo. Information on how your data is being collected and used is hidden, buried deep on Onavo’s website.
We all know most people do not read the fine print, and it can’t be expected that a typical user, or even a privacy-conscious user, will dig deep enough into Onavo’s text to find out what’s happening with their data. Facebook is purposefully duping its users into downloading an invasive application under the guise of privacy.
While Onavo’s app store description does explain it’s “a part of Facebook,” and used to “improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and service people value, and build better experience,” to an average user this information is meaningless.
Protect is only rolled out on the iOS app currently, indicating Facebook is likely conducting a test. Onavo has more than 33 million installs worldwide.
What Can You Do
So, what should you do in response to this news? You should NOT download Onavo Protect, for one. The application has no interest in protecting you, whatsoever. You should also select privacy providers who are transparent and trustworthy, and whose mission is to protect user privacy. We created a handy checklist to help you determine who you can trust. Above all, you can use a safe and reliable VPN each time you connect.
And always remember if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A Facebook-sponsored VPN application, conveniently located in-app, would certainly fall into that category.