Facebook Will Shutter Onavo VPN App Following Intense Privacy Scrutiny

Facebook is notorious for disrespecting users’ privacy. Users have plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the social media site, thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the most recent privacy breach, and everything in between. The social media giant is thankfully now taking a step in the right direction by removing their Onavo VPN app from the Google Play store.

The Onavo VPN can no longer be found in the Google Play store and Facebook has stopped recruiting potential users. Facebook promises that the app will be completely shut down, although they have not provided a final date. They will continue to offer their virtual private network (VPN) for the time being until users can find a replacement.

Facebook purchased Onavo, an Israeli mobile web analytics company, in October 2013. The company was best known for analytics apps and the “Onavo Protect” or their VPN app. After Facebook acquired Onavo, they rebranded the “Onavo Protect” as the “Facebook Research” app. They marketed it towards users between the ages of 13 and 35 and paid participants $20 USD in gift cards per month.

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The “Facebook Research” app promised users that it would help them to “limit apps from using background data” and offered a VPN to protect the user’s privacy. The app description also noted that it would monitor user activity (location data, private messages, etc.) Facebook used this collected information to analyze trends and study their competitors. Information from the app ultimately led Facebook to purchase WhatsApp for $19 billion USD in February 2014.

The “Facebook Research” app violates Apple’s privacy policy. Facebook worked around these limitations by distributing the app through Apple Developer Enterprise Program. Once Apple discovered what Facebook was up to, they revoked Facebook’s developer privileges on iOS. According to Apple, “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization...any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked.”

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Apple was so frustrated by the deception that they revoked all of Facebook’s app certificates. Facebook employees were unable to access the company’s internal apps on iOS. It appears that Facebook is trying to avoid a similar situation with the Google Play store by preemptively taking the app down. Let us hope that Facebook has learned their lesson from this experience and that it will not be repeated in the future.