Facebook's Mobile VPN Onavo A Major Privacy Risk: NordVPN

Facebook's virtual private network Onavo Protect is a major privacy risk, NordVPN Chief Marketing Officer Marty P. Kamden said Thursday, adding that the mobile app does the opposite of what a "reputable" VPN service should do - ensure the online privacy of its users. Facebook started encouraging users of its main iOS app to install Onavo Protect on their devices earlier this week through a "Protect" option added the app's sidebar. The same solution is also available on Android but under the name of "Protect Free VPN+Data Manager," and the Facebook Android app isn't actively promoting it.

Founded in 2010, Israeli startup Onavo was purchased by Facebook in 2013 for an undisclosed fee, with industry insiders previously claiming the social media giant paid between $100 million and $200 million for the Tel Aviv-based analytics company. Onavo largely continued operating independently following the acquisition, with its data reportedly being used by Facebook to track the usage of competing apps and other mobile habits of its users, not all of whom had the Facebook app on their devices. Keeping user logs is against the very purpose of a VPN service, NordVPN's executive argued yesterday, calling Onavo Protect a data collection service "disguised as a privacy tool." As such, the app represents a serious privacy risk, especially for people using it in countries where their freedom of speech is restricted or non-existent who are wrongly assuming they're protected to say what they will, Kamden believes.

Onavo's official reasoning for collecting data is that it uses it to improve its service, which NordVPN dismisses as a frivolous claim and one that cannot be proven. Even if Onavo's intentions aren't malicious and Facebook isn't using it to keep tabs on mobile users who are assuming their privacy is protected, any activity logs "can be easily mishandled," Kamden said, urging anyone who has the free app to uninstall it and instead opt for a "trusted paid VPN" to protect them. No free VPN service can be trusted because providing such a solution without charging users isn't economically viable without resorting to other means of monetization such as selling user data, NordVPN's executive concluded. Onavo Protect has so far been downloaded up to 50 million times on Android alone, according to its Google Play Store listing, though it's presently unclear how many people are actively using the mobile service.

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