'Facebook Protect' VPN Tool Actually Spies on Users

John Lister's picture

The recently debuted 'Facebook Protect' feature has sparked controversy. Facebook says it's a tool to protect user privacy, but critics suggest it is nothing more than a tracking tool designed to collect user activity.

The tool appears in the iPhone/iPad app for Facebook. Although the menu option is listed as 'Protect', it's actually a virtual private network (VPN) tool called "Onavo."

A VPN works by creating the virtual equivalent of a private "tunnel" on the Internet. The tunnel then allows data to flow back and forth between a user's computer and the website or service they are visiting. In principle, the VPN works more like a private network that users might have inside a company or their home, rather than a public Internet hotspot.

VPNs Can Beat Geo-Blocks

One reason to use a VPN is to keep Internet traffic more secret, making it difficult or impossible for a third party (such as an employer or government) to 'listen in' and read your activity. Another use of a VPN is to disguise the location of a computer, getting round regional blocks such as those placed on some online videos. Some VPNs can also get round Internet provider policies that block or slow down particular types of data such as file sharing.

One drawback is that some companies providing the VPN service can record the details about a user's online activity. They won't necessarily be able to see encrypted data such as message contents, but could track exactly what sites and pages visited. That's why tech experts often recommend that users stick to reputable VPN services - which usually carry a fee - and, which have a policy of discarding this information without it being logged and used by third parties. (Source: gizmodo.com)

'Facebook Protect' Used for Market Insight

When the Facebook Protect feature is enabled, Facebook is in fact tracking user activity - particularly paying close attention to which apps are downloaded from the Apple App Store. Tech analysts say Facebook has already benefited by getting 'early notice' that particular rival app services were performing better or worse than expected, and may even have prompted one buyout of an app aimed at teens. (Source: techcrunch.com)

What's not clear is whether Facebook simply collects this information in aggregated form, or if it's adding it to the vast amount of data it already holds on individual users. According to posts online, the "Facebook Protect" feature is not enabled by default. (Source: neowin.net)

What's Your Opinion?

Do you use a VPN service? Is a VPN provider tracking your online activity a fair price to pay for the service being free to use? Should Facebook more prominently point out that it collects such data when promoting the 'Protect' tool?

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Dennis Faas's picture

VPNs are meant to "protect" users from data snooping, yet this one does the exact opposite. Steer clear from this rogue app!

Unrecognised's picture

Pure evil. Yet another reason to avoid FB like plague!