Facebook finally removes controversial Onavo VPN from Google Play Store

22 Feb 2019

Google Play Store icon. Image: radub85/Depositphotos 

Six months after removing the Onavo VPN app from the App Store, Facebook has now pulled the Android version.

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, according to TechCrunch.

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.

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.

Onavo no stranger to controversy

Last year, Apple reprimanded Facebook over Onavo’s violation of its data collection rules. It broke rules on collection of user information for use in marketing and analytics, including running analytics queries on the traffic it routed through its servers as part of its VPN service. The app was pulled, but its code continued to be used in the Facebook Research app.

An investigation into the Facebook Research app found that it was used by the company to access the data of users, who were paid as much as $20 monthly for the valuable information. This project was also referred to as ‘Project Atlas’ in some documentation.

Apple pulled this particular app as Facebook had used enterprise developer certificates to distribute it. The iPhone maker maintains that these certificates should only be used for specific business purposes, or by employees using internal company apps. Apple also blocked all of Facebook’s internal company apps for a short time following the social network’s misuse of the certificates.

Facebook will continue with market research

Facebook has now stopped recruiting new users for the Facebook Research app project, but existing studies will continue to run. A Facebook spokesperson said: “Market research helps companies build better products for people. We are shifting our focus to reward-based market research, which means we’re going to end the Onavo programme.”

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.

Google Play Store icon. Image: radub85/Depositphotos 

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects