ACCC takes Facebook to court over ‘spyware' VPN

Mariam Cheik-Hussein
By Mariam Cheik-Hussein | 16 December 2020
An ad for Onavo Protect

Consumer watchdog the ACCC has started proceedings in the Federal Court against Facebook for false, misleading or deceptive conduct relating to its promotion of the Onavo Protect app.

Onavo Protect was a free mobile app that provided users with a virtual private network (VPN) service. Facebook acquired Onavo, based in the US, and Onavo Mobile, based in Israel and later renamed to Facebook Israel, in 2013.

However, Onavo Protect was eventually shut by Facebook last year following backlash against how it was used to track user activity, with the app being described as spyware.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleges that between 1 February 2016 to October 2017, Facebook and its subsidiaries Facebook Israel and Onavo misled Australian consumers by representing that the Onavo Protect app would keep users’ personal activity data private, protected and secret, and that the data would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect’s products.

However, the watchdog alleges that Onavo Protect collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit. This included details about Onavo Protect users’ internet and app activity, such as records of every app they accessed and the number of seconds each day they spent using those apps.

The ACCC says this data was used to support Facebook’s market research activities, including identifying potential future acquisition targets.

“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,” says ACCC chair Rod Sims.

“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.”

facebook onavo

Sims says the conduct deprived Australian consumers of the opportunity to make an informed choice about the collection and use of their personal activity data by Facebook and Onavo.

The Onavo Protect website stated that the app would “save, measure and protect” users’ mobile data, while Facebook’s ads for the app included statements such as “Keep it secret. Keep it safe… Onavo Protect, from Facebook”.

The ACCC is seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties.

In 2018 Apple removed Onavo Protect from its App store for non-compliance with its developer terms, such as collecting information about other apps installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics.

The app was also removed from the Google Play store, and Facebook discontinued the app in May 2019.

Last week, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought proceedings against Facebook, alleging it had engaged in anti-competitive behaviour to maintain its social networking monopoly, including its acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram. Court documents filed by the US FTC refer to Facebook’s use of Onavo Protect data to identify future acquisitions as part of the allegation that Facebook is illegally maintaining a monopoly.


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