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Facebook pulls the plug on its data snooping Onavo VPN service

Facebook pulls the plug on its data snooping Onavo VPN service


Its research programs will also gain more clarity

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Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Facebook is shutting down its controversial Onavo VPN app, and will end its practice of conducting unpaid market research programs, TechCrunch reports. Although paid research studies will continue through other means, the company says it will ensure users explicitly understand their privacy implications. The Android version of the Onavo app has now been removed from the Play Store, although will remain functional for existing users for a short while longer.

Onavo was responsible for gathering important data for Facebook. The VPN app advertised itself as a means of limiting background app data usage as well as offering “a secure VPN network for your personal info.” However, it also collected information about the time users spent using various apps, mobile and Wi-Fi data usage per app, device and country information, and other information about which websites they visited.

Existing studies will continue, although they’re not accepting new participants

According to Buzzfeed it was this app that gave Facebook the data it needed to understand the popularity of the rival WhatsApp service. After seeing the amount of messages people were sending through WhatsApp, the company grew to understand the threat it posed to Facebook Messenger, and later acquired it for $16 billion.

Controversy over Onavo erupted last year when Facebook was forced to pull the app from the iOS App Store after Apple said it violated rules about data collection. However, code from the service lived on in the Facebook Research app, which paid teenagers as much as $20 a month for access to all their phone activity data.

After details of the Facebook Research app emerged, Apple removed that too from its App Store. This time, the iPhone manufacturer took issue with the way Facebook had distributed the app using enterprise developer certificates meant for internal employees’ phones. Apple subsequently blocked all of Facebook’s internal iOS applications from working for a short time. For now, Facebook’s research app still runs on Android. It is not accepting any more participants, although TechCrunch notes that existing studies will continue.