Security is a major concern in computing, particularly in mobile devices and the Internet of Things. Over the past few years, overall usage of VPN services has increased, and consumers often see these programs as a way to avoid having one’s traffic snooped on. Well and good. But Facebook’s new VPN service, which has now rolled out for iOS devices, is fundamentally different than any standard service.
Unlike a typical VPN, Onavo Protect (from a company Facebook purchased in 2013) explicitly gives itself permission to mine your data. Buried underneath the “Read More” link, you’ll find the following:
As part of this process, Onavo collects your mobile data traffic. This helps us improve and operate the Onavo service by analyzing your use of websites, apps and data. Because we’re part of Facebook, we also use this info to improve Facebook products and services, gain insights into the products and services people value, and build better experiences.
Think about the implications of this. In the name of providing safety, Facebook gets to analyze which apps you use, which websites you visit, and how those trends change over time. If a new app starts to become popular, FB will know about it based on data harvested from user devices. Are you watching YouTube instead of Facebook Video? FB gets to know. While this feature is integrated into Facebook’s iOS app, the application also states that it provides an additional level of security to all your mobile traffic.
Onavo may well function as an effective VPN and offer an additional layer of security, but Facebook isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart. Onavo is a deliberate attempt to head off competition before it can even get started. Facebook has taken heat before for co-opting the features of other services into its own product, but this goes a step further. Businesses, generally speaking, quickly copy something that’s working. If iOS deploys new features that others like, you tend to see similar options popping up in Android. When Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds became a hit, developers like Epic Games started building a Battle Royale mode into Fortnite.
But this isn’t Facebook seeing a successful company and just copying its work. This is Facebook trying to find out where its next competitor is going to come from by mining your life to do it. The irony is staggering, given that many people use VPNs to increase privacy and security. It’s literally baked into the acronym — Virtual Private Network. Facebook is removing the “privacy” portion of that equation and hoping nobody notices.