ACCC Sues Facebook For Offering Free VPN Service to Spy on Users

Onavo Protect - VPN Security app in App Store. Close-up on the laptop screen.

Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is taking legal action against Facebook. The regulator believes that Facebook misled Australians when they offered VPN service Onavo Protect supposedly for free. In reality, the mobile app collected all kinds of data that Facebook in turn made money from.

Supposedly Free VPN Service

Between February 2016 and October 2017, Facebook, along with subsidiaries Facebook Israel and Onavo, offered the Onavo Protect app to Australians for free. Users could download the software application for free to “keep their personal activity data private, protected and secret”. The VPN service was available through Google Play and Apple’s App Store for a year and a half.

In reality, Onavo Protect did not do what it promised at all. On the contrary: the app collected as much personal information as possible from Australian consumers and passed it on to Facebook. According to the ACCC, this included personally identifying data that was later combined, where possible, with the users’ Facebook ID. Also included were details about users’ surfing behavior, records of the apps they accessed, the actions they took in each app, and the time users spent on them every day.

Subsequently, Facebook and Onavo used this information to their own commercial benefit. The data ended up in Facebook’s “partnerships” department that researches potential acquisition targets and start-ups, for example. Facebook’s “market strategy” and “product strategy” business groups also used the information.

False, Misleading and Deceptive

According to ACCC chairman Rod Sims, Facebook is guilty of deception. The platform promoted Onavo Protect as an application to keep people’s data protected, secret and private. In practice, it was nothing more than a tool to collect as much user data as possible.

“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,” Rod Sims said.

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

Onavo Protect is no longer available in Australia. In 2018, Apple removed the application from the App Store because it was collecting information about other apps for marketing purposes. In 2019, Google also removed the app from the Play Store. That same year, Facebook stopped further development and support of the app.

According to the ACCC, 270,000 Australians used Onavo Protect between February 2016 and October 2017. Even though this incident occurred some time ago now, the regulator is not willing to just let it drop. Therefore, the ACCC is going to the federal court seeking declarations and pecuniary penalties from Facebook and its subsidiaries. It is not yet known what compensation amount the regulator is seeking.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson explained: “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.”

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For VPNoverview.com she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.