Facebook voluntarily moves privacy-violating VPN from Google Play

It’s an open secret that Facebook has been less than upfront about their data collection practices in the decade and a half of its existence. But it’s only fairly recently that the scrutiny of the general public and the federal government has turned on to the social network. And Facebook is scrambling to clean up their act.

The latest move sees the tech giant essentially disabling Onavo Protect, their $200 million 2013 acquisition, by removing it from the Google Play Store. Onavo Connect had already been removed from the App Store in August of 2018 after Apple released new guidelines and found the app to be in violation.

Billed as Virtual Private Network (VPN), Onavo Protect actually collected data about what users were doing on their entire device. Perhaps not surprisingly, that data collection wasn’t always very clearly outlined to the user.

While the links for the Onavo Protect to both iOS and Google Play are no longer functional, this what the first paragraph for the iOS app used to say:

“This powerful app helps keep you safe by understanding when you visit potentially malicious or harmful websites and giving you a warning. It also helps keep your details secure when you login to websites or enter personal information such as bank accounts and credit card numbers.”

It wasn’t not until the third to last sentence of the description — which you could only see if you clicked “more” — that there was any mention of data collection. And Facebook wasn’t mentioned until the very end:

“As part of this process, Onavo collects 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.”

Onavo Protect allowed Facebook to figure out which apps were up-and-coming, keeping them aware of potential disrupters and also which companies they should consider acquiring. For example, data from Onavo Protect informed Facebook that WhatsApp was sending exponentially more messages than Messenger, which led to the acquisition of the popular app.

In addition to taking down Onavo, Facebook has also stopped its controversial “research” app, which led to Apple shutting down everything they’d built on the Apple Enterprise Developer Program in January 2019. The one day shutdown left Facebook employees scrambling, as both the shuttle schedule and lunch menu were hosted on Enterprise.

Tech companies rely on data in order to provide support to customers but also to determine the direction they should take their products. But if these moves by Facebook — which is arguably one of the worst offenders — are anything to go by, it appears that the era of surreptitious data collection by Big Tech may be coming to a close.

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