Facebook App's 'Protect' Feature Could Be Tracking Your Activity

That reportedly means Facebook can track your activity across apps, and it can use that data to spot new trends.

Unfortunately in some cases, this tracking feature isn't always disclosed so publicly, and in some cases is masquerading as something else. Clicking it will send you to the App Store and prompt you to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service called Onavo.

To see what we're talking about, head over to the Facebook iOS app, press the navigation button (three horizontal lines on the bottom right), scroll down, and you may see a new option labeled "Protect".

Under the pretense of protecting your account, Facebook is telling users download to a Facebook-owned app that tracks what you do on your phone - and sends that information back to Facebook.

Now the good news is that users don't have to install Onavo on their phones if they don't want to. The option, which comes under the title "Protect", redirects users directly to the Onavo Protect app's listing on the App Store.

The problem, though, is that while Facebook promotes Onavo to its massive user base as a tool for protection, it provides significantly less emphasis on the service's intrusive features.

Facebook's Protect iOS feature effectively installs spyware on iPhones and iPads
Facebook's Protect security feature is essentially Spyware

'This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analysing your use of websites, apps and data. However, Onavo Protect is just doing exactly the opposite. Facebook used the data to identify that Instagram's Stories feature was slowing Snapchat user growth before Snap Inc. itself admitted to the fact.

The data available with app insights firm Sensor Tower reveals that the Onavo Protect app has so far received more than 33 million installs across iOS and Android devices and around 62 percent of those are from Google Play. But now Facebook is on a more concerted push to make Onavo part of your Facebook experience.

'Like other VPNs, it acts as a secure connection to protect people from potentially harmful sites. The app may collect your mobile data traffic to help us recognise tactics that bad actors use.

VPNs work by forcing your laptop or mobile device to establish a connection to a third-party server before then connecting you to any websites or online services.

'We let people know about this activity and other ways that Onavo uses and analyses data before they download it'. It matters because it is widely held that Facebook's primary policy regarding your privacy is that you can exclude anyone from gathering your information except (well, aside from Facebook). It's another thing when the company in question is part of Facebook, and that data can be combined with both any data you've allowed Facebook to have and any data about you that people you know have inadvertently provided to Facebook. And while the initial excuse for this is to optimise the VPN service, the company also says it'll be using the information to "improve Facebook products".

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  • Douglas Reid