Thousands of Australian consumers believed Facebook’s Onavo Protect app would protect them, but instead it was skimming from their devices internal records on every app they used and time spent using them, alleges the Canberra-based ACCC watchdog.

Onavo Protect was a so-called virtual private network (VPN) service offered for free by Facebook to smartphone users, until it was forced to shut it down in 2019. 

Filing its lawsuit at Australia’s Federal Court Wednesday, the ACCC said between February 2016 and October 2017 Facebook and its subsidiaries — Facebook Israel and Onavo Inc — “misled Australian consumers.”

Instead of keeping user activity data “secret” and “safe” as it allegedly advertised, Onavo Protect “collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit,” asserted the ACCC.

VPNs enable internet users to surf the web as if they were doing so from a number of different countries around the world. They are typically used either to access material not available in a user’s country of residence, or to ensure that your internet provider or government does not have access to your online habits and activities. As such, they are typically associated with secure and encrypted web usage and tend to cost money.

Watchdog chair Rod Sims said: “In fact, Onavo Protect channeled significant volumes of their personal activity data straight back to Facebook.”

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company had cooperated during the ACCC’s probe, claiming that users were told what information was being gathered and how this would be used.

According to specialist websites like Techcrunch, data from these VPN products also allowed Facebook key insights into users’ online habits outside the Facebook empire, for instance demonstrating the value of instant messenger service WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired in 2014 soon after purchasing Onavo.

Campaigns to rein in internet giants

Already, Australian authorities are pressing global digital giants such as Facebook and Google via draft legislation to pay for content from news outlets that they share. 

In March, Australia’s information commissioner began legal action against Facebook for allegedly exposing citizens to a data breach by Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political consulting firm.

On December 9, the US Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general for 48 US states launched lawsuits against Facebook, alleging it maintained a monopoly.

Instead of competing on its merits, Facebook had made “billions by converting personal data into a cash cow,” alleged New York Attorney General Letitia James.

“There is a connection, to what the FTC is saying, but they are looking at competition,” said ACCC chairman Sims. “We’re looking at the consumer.”

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted the ACCC’s Sims as saying: “I think the regulatory community is catching up to what’s going on with platforms. And I think it will make a huge difference.” 

ipj/msh (AFP, dpa)