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article imageFacebook's Onavo VPN service branded 'spyware' for tracking users

By James Walker     Feb 16, 2018 in Technology
Facebook has updated its iOS app to include links to Onavo, a VPN service the company bought in 2013. The VPN has been branded "spyware" because it sends usage information back to Facebook. The company claims it offers "protection" while browsing online.
Facebook has kept Onavo separate from its primary social network since acquiring the app. Earlier this week, TechCrunch noticed that a link to Onavo has been added to Facebook's main app. It's labelled "Protect" and appears in Facebook's list of app services and features.
Onavo provides a free VPN service that purports to help users browse the web securely. VPNs are a popular way to bypass Internet blocks and regional restrictions. They also offer a degree of anonymity to protect your online identity. However, people are concerned that Facebook's using Onavo as a way to keep tabs on its users. The company's data collection appears to undermine Onavo's claimed focus on privacy.
Onavo's app store description admits its data may be used to "improve" Facebook products and "gain insights" into existing experiences. According to a Wall Street Journal report from last year, Facebook actively uses Onavo to monitor its users, products and market rivals. The publication claimed Facebook first spotted a decline in the growth of Snapchat using analytical data collected from Onavo.
The addition of Onavo as a link in Facebook's main app may increase its audience. This would allow Facebook to start collecting data from new users. The labelling of Onavo as "Protect" hides the service's true identity. Critics have also expressed concern that Onavo and Facebook do not provide sufficiently clear information on the data sharing that takes place.
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Responding to its app update, Facebook told TechCrunch that Onavo provides a "secure connection" to the web. It admitted that it collects data from the service but claimed this is only to identify "bad actors" on the web. The company did not address the concerns that it's intentionally promoting Onavo so it can monitor more new users.
"Like other VPNs, [Onavo] acts as a secure connection to protect people from potentially harmful sites. The app may collect your mobile data traffic to help us recognize tactics that bad actors use," said Facebook. "Over time, this helps the tool work better for you and others. We let people know about this activity and other ways that Onavo uses and analyses data before they download it."
The biggest concern about Onavo is the lack of clear disclosure about its relationship to Facebook. Typical users may not notice the privacy terms or the affiliation notes under the "read more" link in its app store description. While the free VPN service may be attractive to some users, they might not be aware that the "secure" connection is broadcasting their browsing activity back to Facebook.
With the company already trying to resolve serious public trust concerns, the criticism of Onavo won't help Facebook fix its perception problem. It's unclear how many people can currently access Onavo through the Facebook app. The company currently appears to be rolling it out to iOS users situated in the U.S.
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