Apple Boots Facebook's Nosy VPN Out of App Store

Senior editor, security and privacy
Updated

It's Tim Cook vs. Mark Zuckerberg, Round 2, as Apple kicked Facebook's Onavo Protect VPN app out of its app store for apparent privacy violations, The Wall Street Journal reported last night (Aug. 23).

Credit: Faizal Ramli/ShutterstockCredit: Faizal Ramli/Shutterstock

The removal followed Apple's warning to Facebook that Onavo Protect didn't meet Apple's new guidelines for personal-data collection, the Journal reported. Negotiations went nowhere, and Facebook "voluntarily" removed the app from Apple's store at Apple's suggestion.

Onavo Protect ruffled feathers when Facebook first deployed it on iPhones a few years ago, as privacy advocates noticed that it scooped up huge amounts of data from users' devices, including which other apps were loaded and how they were being used.

The Journal says Facebook has used the user-behavior information provided by Onavo Protect to get early wind of potential threats and rivals to its platform dominance, and that Onavo data played a role in Facebook's decision to buy WhatsApp in 2014.

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Earlier this year, Apple CEO Cook and Facebook CEO Zuckerberg publicly squabbled over user privacy, the Journal said, with Cook saying Apple respected customers more. Zuckerberg called Cook's comments "extremely glib."

Onavo Protect provides a VPN service offering to protect user privacy, but its disclaimer on Google Play sounds like it does the opposite.

"Onavo may collect your mobile data traffic," the disclaimer reads. "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."

It seems that Onavo may protect you from the snoopers sitting at the next table in the coffee shop, but it's telling Facebook all about how you're using your phone and where you're going online.

ZDNet's Charlie Osborne noted that when Facebook bought the Israeli startup Onavo, it was best known for a "market intelligence service" that "analyzed data to monitor market share and active usage of apps, as well as how people were using their devices."

In other words, Onavo Protect may be a VPN that does nothing to protect your privacy. If you still want to use Onavo Protect, it's available on Google Play, and the Journal says it will not be removed from iPhones that have it already installed.

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