Facebook Finally Shuts Down Its Snooping, Bullshit 'VPN' After A Full Year Of Complaints

from the with-friends-like-these dept

Just about a year ago we noted how Facebook was taking some heat on the security and privacy fronts for pitching a “privacy protecting” VPN to consumers that actually violated consumer privacy. Based on the Onavo platform acquired by Facebook back in 2013, the company’s “Onavo Protect ? VPN Security” app informed users that the product would “keep you and your data safe when you browse and share information on the web” and that the “app helps keep your details secure when you login to websites or enter personal information such as bank accounts and credit card numbers.”

It didn’t take long before many began to notice those claims weren’t, well, true.

A wide variety of different news outlets were quick to point out that Facebook was actually using the “privacy” app to track users around the internet when they wandered away from Facebook, then using that data to its own competitive advantage:

“Interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with Facebook?s use of Onavo data show in detail how the social-media giant employs it to measure what people do on their phones beyond Facebook?s own suite of apps. That information shapes Facebook?s product and acquisition strategy?furthering its already formidable competitive edge, the people said.”

By August, complaints had heated up enough that Apple announced it would be pulling the service from its app store for misleading its customers and violating the app store policies. Even then, Facebook continued to market and push the VPN as a privacy tool while undermining the whole point of said privacy tool. That continued well into this year until TechCrunch released a story noting that Facebook has also been paying kids to install a ?Facebook Research VPN,” very similar to the Onavo “VPN,” the entire function of which was to sidestep app store bans and continue hoovering up data.

That story, understandably, finally appeared to drive a stake into the heart of Facebook’s efforts, as many wondered if the participating kids were actually capable of giving their consent for the project. As such it’s now a full year later, and as Facebook faces a wave of endless scandals of its own making, it appears to have finally gotten the message and will be shutting these dubious VPN efforts down:

“With the suspicions about tech giants and looming regulation leading to more intense scrutiny of privacy practices, Facebook has decided that giving users a utility like a VPN in exchange for quietly examining their app usage and mobile browsing data isn?t a wise strategy. Instead, it will focus on paid programs where users explicitly understand what privacy they?re giving up for direct financial compensation.”

For one, notice how conventional tech “wisdom” didn’t really give a shit that Facebook was misleading users until kids were involved, which speaks pretty loudly to our collective privacy apathy. Two, that it took Facebook a full year to realize this was the correct path forward is astonishing. This is a company that’s been facing calls for privacy regulation in the wake of nearly a year of almost weekly scandals, yet just kept stumbling forward on the same path. It’s another example that Facebook’s biggest problem isn’t a mean press (as some Facebook insiders have allegedly declared), it’s Facebook’s executive “leadership.”

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Companies: facebook

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Comments on “Facebook Finally Shuts Down Its Snooping, Bullshit 'VPN' After A Full Year Of Complaints”

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ryuugami says:

Double jeopardy

Now that the initial outrage has passed and isn’t likely to resurface again, Facebook admits they were lying about Onavo’s reach. Here’s an update from a couple of days ago:
Facebook admits 18% of research spyware users were teens, not <5%

(BTW, the "different" and "news outlets" links in the third paragraph are, ironically, pointing to the same article 🙂 )

Anonymous Coward says:

For one, notice how conventional tech "wisdom" didn’t really give a shit that Facebook was misleading users until kids were involved, which speaks pretty loudly to our collective privacy apathy.

What? Lots of people complain about Facebook’s privacy practices (try clicking the Facebook or Onavo tags—they even got kicked from Apple’s app store over this). I know people who avoid Facebook entirely or are very careful about what data they provide, because of privacy concerns. Courts and regulators frequently investigate them too, although mostly in Europe.

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