Facebook is being sued by Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over how the company allegedly used its Onavo VPN to spy on users for commercial purposes during 2016 and 2017.
The social media giant first acquired the VPN service Onavo back in 2013 for close to $200m. Facebook then released an app called Onavo Project which was subsequently banned from Apple’s App Store for collecting and reporting usage data.
In its case, the ACCC is accusing the company of false, misleading or deceptive conduct toward thousands of Australian consumers who believed the personal data they sent through its Onavo Protect app would be kept private and not used for any other purpose.
ACCC chair Rod Sims provided further insight on how Facebook used the app for its own commercial gain in a statement, saying:
“Through Onavo Protect, Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app. Consumers often use VPN services because they care about their online privacy, and that is what this Facebook product claimed to offer. In fact, Onavo Protect channelled significant volumes of their personal activity data straight back to Facebook.”
Spying on users
According to the ACCC, Facebook misled Australian consumers by misrepresenting the functions of its free-to-download Onavo Protect app between February, 1 2016 and October 2017. The regulator is currently seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties through its case.
In a statement to TechCrunch though, a Facebook spokesperson explained that the company was clear about the information collected when consumers downloaded Onavo Protect, saying:
“When people downloaded Onavo Protect, we were always clear about the information we collect and how it is used. We’ve cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation into this matter to date. We will review the recent filing by the ACCC and will continue to defend our position in response to this recent filing.”
Facebook shuttered its Onavo Protect app last year following backlash regarding how it had used the VPN app to spy on users. Based on internal company documents made public by the UK parliament in 2018, the social media giant used Onavo charts to gain insights into which third party apps users were downloading to their devices.
WhatsApp is a great example of this as data from Onavo showed that the messaging service was a competitive threat to Facebook’s Messenger app. Shortly after learning this though, Facebook spent $19bn to acquire WhatsApp in 2014.
We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the ACCC’s lawsuit is successful but this likely isn’t the last time that Onavo Protect will be used against Facebook in a legal setting.