Once again Facebook has been the target of backlash surrounding its market research activity. Facebook’s Onavo Protect VPN app is being pulled from Google Play Store after being forced off the Apple platform last year.
At first glance the move appears voluntary. However, reports indicate that this may in fact be a preemptive move in the face of backlash over the Facebook Research app, which was revealed to have been secretly paying teenagers and adults in exchange for full access to their data.
Onavo Protect VPN Used to Mine Data
Onavo, an Isreali startup, was acquired by Facebook in 2013. The Onavo Protect VPN was marketed as a tool for reducing the data usage of background apps and providing users with increased browser privacy through a secure network. However, ironically, by running Onavo through Facebook’s servers, Facebook was able to mine huge amounts of data from the app’s 10 million users.
Information gathered primarily focused on time and data spent on competitor apps while also showing location and device model. Notably, it was through this app that Facebook discovered WhatsApp’s popularity, triggering Facebook to acquire the messaging service in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, such surveillance activities were found to breach Apple’s privacy policies, forcing removal of the app from the App Store last August. However, the VPN service continued to be available on Google Play Store, until now.
Onavo Code Repurposed in New App
In January, an investigative report from TechCrunch showed that while Facebook had complied in removing the VPN service from the App Store, it had proceeded to repurpose the code into the new Facebook Research app, previously known as Project Atlas. This new VPN service, active since 2016, was found to be paying teenagers and adults in secret in return for full access to their mobile activity. Users between the ages of 13 and 35 were paid in gift cards to the value of $20 per month.
Facebook avoided the use of the Apple App Store by recruiting users directly through targeted advertisements on Instagram and Snapchat under the guise of other labels such as Applause and uTest. Consequently, users were initially unaware that they were being recruited by Facebook.
Though Facebook argues there was no secrecy involved, new users were required to sign non-disclosure agreements and warned that legal action could follow any public discussion of the program. Furthermore, while parental permission was required for minors, it’s impossible to know how many young people genuinely involved their parents, especially in light of an easy monthly allowance.
The Facebook Research app was forced off the iOS platform after Apple blocked it due to violations of privacy policies. Consequently, it appears that Facebook was more likely to be acting preemptively in order to avoid further conflict by removing the Onavo VPN app from the Google Play Store.
Facebook to Focus on Paid Market Research
The Onavo Protect VPN app is now no longer available on Google Play Store and has stopped gathering data from its users, but will remain functional for an interim period to give users time to find a new VPN service.
Facebook has also stopped recruiting new users for its research app, though data will continue to be gathered from existing users. Facebook now claims to be focusing on paid market research, and consequently will be forced to exercise a greater degree of transparency. However, current users of either app would do well to uninstall them if they have any privacy concerns.