Facebook is shutting down its controversial VPN app. The app, called Onavo, was ostensibly a VPN allowing users to keep their personal information safe and limit the amount of background data apps could use. However, there was more to it than that.
The Story Behind Facebook’s Onavo VPN App
Facebook acquired Onavo in 2013, and used the app to gather data about its users. According to BuzzFeed, this data informed Facebook just how popular WhatsApp was, which helped convince Facebook to spend $19 billion acquiring the rival messaging app.
Onavo billed itself as “a secure VPN” that let you “limit apps from using background data”. However, it would also track the “time you spend using apps, mobile and Wi-Fi data you use per app, the websites you visit, and your country, device and network type”.
Onavo proved pretty popular too, racking up over 30 million downloads across Android and iOS. In August 2018, Apple removed Onavo from the Apple App Store for breaking its data collection policies. However, Onavo has remained available on Android.
Facebook Gets Caught Researching Teenagers
Now, as reported by TechCrunch, Facebook has pulled Onavo off Google Play. It will continue operating as a VPN for a while, but no more data will be collected. This comes after reports suggested Facebook was paying people to install a Facebook Research VPN.
According to TechCrunch, Facebook has been paying people aged between 13 and 35 “up to $20 per month plus referral fees” to install the Facebook Research VPN. Once installed, the app would be granted root access, and then track all phone and web activity.
As with Onavo, Apple immediately blocked the Facebook Research app. Google didn’t ban either app. Facebook is now shutting down the Onavo app on Android, and will no longer recruit users for the Facebook Research VPN. However, existing studies will continue.
How Will Facebook Conduct Market Research Now?
Facebook has done the right thing in stopping this market research initiative. However, the social network had to be shamed into doing so, and it’s bound to carry on conducting market research in other ways. Let’s just hope its methods are less creepy from now on.