Facebook Removes Controversial Onavo VPN App from Google Play Store

Facebook has said it has removed the Onavo VPN app from the Google Play Store, as well as wrapping up its practice of conducting unpaid market research programmes. The move follows a similar removal of the Onavo iOS app back in August 2018.

According to a new report from TechCrunch, Facebook “will immediately cease pulling in data from [Onavo] users for market research though it will continue operating as a Virtual Private Network in the short term to allow users to find a replacement.”

In August, Onavo Protect was removed from Apple’s App Store for violating privacy guidelines. The app, which Facebook acquired in 2013, offers a virtual private network to help people safely send and receive data on their phones. But when the app was downloaded, users automatically gave the app permission to give Facebook data about their online activity. Facebook reportedly was able to track user activity across apps.

“With the suspicions about tech giants and looming regulation leading to more intense scrutiny of privacy practices, Facebook has decided that giving users a utility like a VPN in exchange for quietly examining their app usage and mobile browsing data isn’t a wise strategy,” TechCrunch wrote. “Instead, it will focus on paid programs where users explicitly understand what privacy they’re giving up for direct financial compensation.”

While the company said it will continue with paid market research studies, it will ensure users are explicitly aware of the privacy implications of such endeavours.

“Market research helps companies build better products for people,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We are shifting our focus to reward-based market research, which means we’re going to end the Onavo programme.”

Onavo itself was advertised as a way of limiting background app data usage, as well as a secure “VPN network for your personal info”. The app also collected data about time users spent on various apps, device data, and mobile and Wi-Fi usage per app, among other things.

With public interest in privacy and data as a valuable commodity currently growing, technology companies will likely have to create more transparency around market research programmes, hopefully leaving certain clandestine practices behind.