What Facebook's VPN scandal tells us about its approach to data privacy

The social media giant was caught paying users to use its proprietary VPN to capture detailed consumer information, we delve into what it tells us about how the company views private data

23Apr

Earlier this year, Facebook faced its latest round of bad publicity regarding a program where nearly 5% of participants were teens. A TechCrunch investigation found that, since 2016, Facebook has offered $20 a month to compel Android and Apple owners between the ages of 13–35 to use a proprietary VPN that captures detailed consumer information. Users under the age of 18 had to obtain parental consent to participate.

The social networking giant, desperate to regain market share, launched the program to understand why users choose other social media platforms. The project is similar to Facebook's Onavo Protect app, which Apple banned from its digital marketplace.

This latest debacle highlights how little companies value private consumer data. Surprisingly, Facebook isn't the only major player that Apple has banned for violating marketplace policies.

What is a VPN?

VPN is an acronym for virtual private network. Primarily, companies – and a growing number of consumers – use VPNs to secure their online activities. In extreme situations, some citizens use VPNs to bypass government censorship on internet content. If the internet service provider (ISP) does not know the user's location, it cannot block content. Finally, some users – unfortunately – use the technology to hide their illegal activity.

Free VPNs, however, come with an inherent risk. It costs money to provide VPN service so if a VPN provider does not charge you to use their service, they will likely sell your information, such as your internet activity and in some cases even your profile.

Meanwhile, your ISP knows nothing about your activity, while your free VPN service knows everything about you. What is worse, the service and speeds delivered through free VPNs are often subpar.

What Facebook's VPN does

Facebook not only provided its VPN for free, but it paid people to use it and, as a result, participants essentially sold their privacy. The app even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order histories. Facebook managed the program through third-party services such as Applause, BetaBound and uTest, and it was known internally ' Project Atlas'.

As a bonus for users, the app helped users track their data usage. However, it also sent Facebook intensely detailed analytic information.

Users willingly installed the app on their devices despite the fact that the use of Apple's marketplace to establish programs that collect data and resell it is a strictly forbidden practice Google was recently under fire for a similar app called Screenwise Meter, although Apple officials have yet to react to the program.

What lies ahead?

A study from Pew Research Center found that only 51% of US individuals aged 13–17 say they use Facebook. This is dramatically down from the 71% who said they used Facebook in Pew Research's 2015 study. And Facebook wants to know why a growing number of teens are migrating to social media sites such as Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram.

Facebook want to understand teen internet activity that has drawn the ire of watchdogs. In an interview with Ezra Klein, the company's CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook could make a lot of money if it could monetize its user base.

Facebook continues to defy Apple developer policies. It is unclear what their next move will be in the battle to capture more detailed consumer data.

For now, it looks as though Facebook has no intention of letting up on its aggressive policy of invasively monitoring online consumer activity. Resultantly, internet users who want to safeguard their privacy must remain mindful of the apps that they load onto their devices.

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