A VPN is supposed to help preserve your privacy, but free VPNs are a very different animal. A free VPN from Facebook? That’s just asking for trouble. Facebook has decided to pull its Onavo VPN app and shut the service down. In addition, it will end all unpaid market research programs while making some changes to its paid programs.
Facebook has decided to make these changes as it struggles to deal with the controversy surrounding its Facebook Research app. A report several weeks ago revealed that Facebook was paying users as young as 13 about $20 per month to share all their device usage data. Apple pulled that app and scolded Facebook for misusing developer certificates to distribute the app.
Onavo is a separate but related service that is also getting the ax. Facebook acquired Onavo in 2013, using the popular free VPN service as a way to collect usage data from users who should have known better. Onavo delivers Facebook data on which apps you use, how often you use them, and which websites you visit. Facebook reportedly learned of WhatsApp’s popularity (and its threat to Messenger) from Onavo data, leading it to acquire the company for $16 billion in 2014.
Technically, Onavo’s true purpose is laid out in the app description, but most people won’t read past the feature list. As of a few days ago, the app description on Google Play still claimed Onavo would “help secure your personal information.” The app is no longer available for download (here’s a cached version), but current users can keep using it for a short time until Facebook shuts off the servers.
Apple forced Facebook to remove Onavo from the App Store last year, but the app remained on Google Play. Now, Facebook has pulled the app from Android as well. The company won’t attempt to scoop up more user data with similar VPN services, but paid research studies are still on the table. One of the primary issues with Facebook Research was the way Facebook attempted to hide its involvement behind a third party, but it says future studies will do a better job of explaining the risks to users.
While Facebook’s use of Onavo was certainly shady, it’s a big company that’s always under intense scrutiny. The many smaller free VPN apps could be doing much worse things with your data. It’s best to steer clear of all free VPNs.
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