Facebook is, to say the very least, not renowned for its privacy policies, so the idea that they might be getting into the VPN market sounds a little far fetched. But that appears to be the case with the latest menu option added to the Facebook iOS app.
The link, which was first highlighted by TechCrunch is entitled Protect and clicking on it will send you directly to the App Store where you will be encouraged to sign to a service entitled Onavo Protect – VPN Security.
A look at the description of the app in the app store reveals that it claims to help keep you and your data safe when online. It claims to warn you if you visit malicious or insecure sites, help protect you on public Wi-Fi networks, and use a VPN service to secure all your mobile data.
On the face of it, that sounds pretty good and positions Onavo as a regular VPN provider. However, as is always the case, the devil is in the detail. And to find out the real purpose of Onavo, we have to look into its history with Facebook.
Facebook purchased Onavo from an Israeli company back in 2013. But the reason for buying it was not to provide Facebook users with a reliable VPN. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.
As the Wall Street Journal [$] reported last year, the reason Facebook purchased Onavo was to collect and analyse the data of users. Facebook is able to watch all of the online activity of Onavo subscribers far more effectively than it can with its use of tracking cookies and other data harvesting tools.
Onavo does indeed reroute user traffic through one of its servers, in the same way as a VPN does. But whereas a genuine VPN will reroute that traffic and keep no record of it anywhere, Onavo actively retains and analyses this data.
How does this give Facebook an advantage? Well, one of the main boosts Facebook gets is an insight into the activity of rival social media services. As the Wall Street Journal article points out, Facebook was aware that Snapchat was suffering from declining user numbers long before the company announced it themselves.
As an individual user, you may or may not care if Facebook is using your internet habits to glean an insight into other big tech companies. But the chances are you do care about it snooping into your personal online habits. But, as the App Store description of Onavo makes clear, this is precisely what they are doing.
Right at the bottom of the small print, Onavo finally comes clean about its real purpose. “Onavo collects your mobile data traffic,” it states. It goes on to admit that it then “analyses your use of websites, apps, and data.”
It initially claims that this is solely to “improve and operate the Onavo service” but further down there is another confession. “Because we’re part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into products and services people value, and build better experiences.”
This is pretty transparent corporate spiel that says ‘We are Facebook spyware’. Because that is exactly what Onavo is. A spyware product masquerading as a VPN and being irresponsibly promoted by one of the world’s biggest and most powerful tech companies.
The reason Facebook is as big, powerful, and profitable, as it is, is down to the data its users provide. They can sell this information to companies and use targeted advertising to reap profits. And this is why Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow executives are billionaires.
The more personal data Facebook can gain on you, the more money they can make. And far from offering users privacy and protection, Onavo is another tool to help gather more of your online data.
Facebook users who are genuinely concerned about their online privacy should be downloading a proper VPN. Recommended providers such as IPVanish and ExpressVPN actually do offer the protections Onavo claims, without collecting or organising any of your data.
Indeed, most of the very best VPNs make a point of keeping no user logs whatsoever. This means that once you disconnect from your VPN, there is no record of your internet activity retained anywhere. And no big tech companies are able to make use of this to target adverts or search engine results for you.