Facebook's 'Free' VPN Is Basically Spyware

Smartphone apps

Marketing Onavo within Facebook itself could lead to a boost in users for the VPN app, which promises to warn users of malicious websites and keep information secure - like bank account and credit card numbers - as you browse.

Facebook already captures a massive amount of data about what we like, where we go, who we're with and how we feel.

It's a VPN app that prevents other services from tracking user's private browsing and usage data. Like all VPNs, it's a private platform that acts as a portal to connect you to the larger internet, tunneling your data through an encrypted path to reduce the risk of eavesdropping.

Facebook has used this tool for a competitive advantage against other mobile apps. It was also data from Onavo that reportedly inspired Facebook to launch a group video chat feature to its Messenger app - styming a smaller app called Houseparty, which provided a very similar feature.

This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data.

Onavo does clearly state Protect is owned by Facebook, and that it shares information with the company but, per Apple App Store's design, the information is found under the expanded "description" tab. "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".

Though Facebook's Android app has recommended the Onavo VPN for some time, its inclusion in the iOS app generated more notice, and has provoked pushback from the technical community.

While the Australian metadata retention laws might be seen as a massive over-reach by government, I wonder how many people will just install this and provide a commercial company that has little interest in anything that isn't profitable with a far richer picture of what we do than any government scheme.

Facebook has not issued a statement or comment regarding this new "feature", but as the story has been picked up by most major news outlets including CNBC, it is likely that Zuckerberg and team will address users' concerns before long. If, say, lots of young people become infatuated with a cool new app, Facebook can decide how it wants to respond. On top of that, Onavo Protect also offers an extra layer of protection whenever users connect to a public WiFi or use their mobile data. It matters because it is widely held that Facebook's primary policy regarding your privacy is that you can exclude anyone from gathering your information except (well, aside from Facebook).

Many VPNs are paid services - the popular AnchorFree Hotspot Shield, for instance, charges $13 a month, or $120 a year.

Our recommendation: If you use the Facebook app on your iPhone or iPad, don't get suckered into installing Onavo Protect. It wasn't clear at the time if it was the next big thing, or just a flash in the pan.

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