Facebook Pulls Privacy-Violating VPN From The App Store

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Facebook has voluntarily pulled their controversial VPN Onavo Protect from the App Store after Apple pointed out that it violated their policies on data collection, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Onavo is a VPN that Facebook acquired in 2013. Like other VPNs, the app is presented as a way for people to protect themselves against hackers and to keep their personal data safe. However, unlike most VPNs, Onavo actually collects user data - and allows Facebook to use that data as well. The data-sharing is outlined in their description in the Google Play Store, which reads:

"As part of providing these features, Onavo may collect your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. Because we're part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and services people value, and build better experiences."

Facebook has used Onavo user data to determine where people are going and what they're doing when they're not on the Facebook app. Considering many people use VPNS specifically to avoid this type of data collection, it seems deceptive at best and completely misleading at worst.

Onavo and Facebook's collection and use of user data has been called out before for being contrary to the purpose of VPNs, which are supposed to be primarily about privacy. But it was allowed to stay in the App Store until recently because it didn't directly violate the Store's policies.

However, Apple has recently released new app guidelines regarding data collection, including a prohibition against collecting and sharing data with third parties unless they specifically "improve the app or serve advertising." They've stepped their enforcement, removing apps that share location data with third parties and banning creating and selling databases compiled from Contacts and address books. And they've cracked down on apps that try to sneak unnecessary data collection in without the user noticing, a problem that's well-documented as being rampant in the App Store.

Onavo was reportedly pulled after conversations between Facebook and Apple led to Apple suggesting Facebook pull the app voluntarily. The two Bay Area tech giants recently went head-to-head publicly over privacy, after Apple's CEO Tim Cook called out Facebook's handling of user data following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded by saying that Cook's comments were untrue. This move by Apple, then, could be another method for drawing lines of demarcation regarding user privacy between their company and Facebook.

Regardless of whether or not this was motivated by a feud between tech companies, the end result is only good for the user. For those of us concerned about security in the tech industry, these moves can sometimes feel like too little, too late. But, in reality, any move toward increasing and enforcing user privacy is a good one.

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