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Facebook’s free VPN acts like spyware to iOS users in the U.S.

Feb 14, 20183 mins
FacebookMobile SecurityNetwork Security

Facebook's new option to 'Protect' is the perfect VPN for users who want everything they do on their iOS device to be tracked and analyzed -- meaning don't do it!

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You would think that if a free VPN were being offered to the masses, then safeguarding so many users’ privacy would be a great thing. Except it is Facebook doing the offering, and the free VPN is designed to track everything a user does.

U.S. Facebook users running the Facebook iOS app will see “Protect” in the navigation menu. Clicking on it takes users to Onavo Protect – VPN Security in the App Store. As was reported by TechCrunch, Facebook acquired Onavo Protect in 2013, but not so much for the security protections it offers as for its spyware-like features.

Onavo claims to provide “peace of mind when you browse,” an “added layer of security,” and will “warn you when you visit potentially malicious or harmful sites.”

No mention of protecting users privacy

Note that there is no mention of protecting privacy, nor is there a mention of aiding in anonymity, things most people would expect from a virtual private network.

Instead, after listing what it will provide, the Onavo app’s description adds:

To provide this layer of protection, Onavo uses a VPN to establish a secure connection to direct all of your network communications through Onavo’s servers. As part of this process, Onavo collects your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. 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.

There are so many red flags in that blurb that you hopefully didn’t get whiplash if your head snapped back. But for people who really don’t understand what protections a VPN should offer them, then Facebook’s free VPN offer might sound good.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal explained how Facebook was taking advantage of Onavo’s monitoring to determine that its rival SnapChat was slowing down in user growth. That was possible because Onavo monitors users outside of the Facebook app; it is tracking users across all websites and apps.

While there is an Android version of Onavo, Facebook currently only offers the “Protect” option to iOS users located in the U.S.

Onavo Product Manager Erez Naveh told TechCrunch:

We recently began letting people in the U.S. access Onavo Protect from the Facebook app on their iOS devices. Like other VPNs, it acts as a secure connection to protect people from potentially harmful sites. The app may collect your mobile data traffic to help us recognize tactics that bad actors use. Over time, this helps the tool work better for you and others. We let people know about this activity and other ways that Onavo uses and analyses data before they download it.

Using a VPN is vitally important in this day and age, but using one that tracks you across all apps and sites is not at all wise. Then again, neither is using Facebook if you care about your privacy.

If you are looking for a VPN, I suggest you take a look at “that one privacy guy’s” detailed VPN comparison chart.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.