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Facebook’s Onavo VPN comes under fire for privacy invasion

What was supposed to be a tool to help users stay secure online is being used by Facebook to track rival applications.

tech Updated: Feb 13, 2018 13:11 IST
Kul Bhushan
Kul Bhushan
Hindustan Times
Facebook Onavo,Onavo Protect,Onavo VPN
Is Facebook Onavo VPN a corporate spyware?(AP)

Facebook is encouraging some users in the US to download an application that allows the company to track other applications on users’ device, all under the guise of “protect” section that is supposed to help users keep themselves secure online.

Facebook has integrated an application called Onavo Protect under its messaging platform. Onavo is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which helps users hide their geo-location data and identity, keeping them safe online. Instead, this app tracks data transmitted from other applications on the users’ device.

Onavo on its privacy policy page confirms that it collects the “information about your mobile applications and data usage, including the applications installed on your device, your use of those applications, the websites you visit, and the amount of data you use”.

Surprisingly, Facebook is quite opaque about the application that it is encouraging users to download.

It is worth noting that Facebook purchased Onavo from an Israel-based company in 2013. On the app store, Onavo’s description reveals it is “a part of Facebook”, and that it can be used to “improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and service people value, and build better experiences” — similar to the policy Facebook has in place for its other platforms.

According to a Wall Street Journal report last year, the acquisition was aimed to help Facebook understand rival applications and online behaviour of users outside the social network.

It is believed that the method helped Facebook gain an insight on Snapchat’s slowed growth, even before Snapchat announced the same in its report last year. Facebook already had an insight on how its Instagram Stories was hurting Snapchat’s user growth. The application could further help Facebook gain knowledge on how its rivals, Twitter and Snap are being used by users.

Gizmodo in its report describes Onavo as “corporate spyware” and encourages users to never user it. “Facebook is already vacuuming up enough of your data without you giving them permission to monitor every website you visit,” the report said.

First Published: Feb 13, 2018 13:10 IST