Facebook’s VPN scandal could be its worst, and most costly, yet

Facebook doesn’t seem to be able to stay out of the news. When it’s not being caught deceiving its core business audience about the effect of their ads on its platform, it’s being caught spying on its users — over and over again.

It’s most recent scandal might be its worst, and not just because it involves the misuse of a technology that’s dear to our hearts. Mostly, it’s because it is very, very creepy.

Facebook has a ‘VPN,’ if by VPN you mean ‘spy tool.’

Meet Facebook’s Protect function. But don’t use it

About this time last year, TechCrunch ran a masterly takedown on Facebook’s Onavo VPN, which came bundled with its mobile app. Facebook was trying to persuade its users to switch on this tool, which would ‘protect’ users and their traffic. The part Facebook wasn’t so up-front about was the bit where Facebook could then see all your traffic… as in, all of it.

In particular, its commercial advantage was identified by TechCrunch:

Onavo’s VPN allow Facebook to monitor user activity across apps, giving Facebook a big advantage in terms of spotting new trends across the larger mobile ecosystem. For example, Facebook gets an early heads up about apps that are becoming breakout hits; it can tell which are seeing slowing user growth; it sees which apps’ new features appear to be resonating with their users, and much more.

Great if you’re Facebook; weird and creepy if you’re, you know, you.

Because Onavo doesn’t just track app usage. As Apple’s John Gruber says, ‘This is spyware. If you use Onavo, Facebook can and will track everywhere you go on the internet.’ (My emphasis.)

So far, so business as usual for Facebook.

But a lot of people feel like they crossed a new red line this time.

Bribing kids to spy on them

Facebook has been paying teens and young adults to install and use Onavo, rebranded as ‘Facebook Research.’

Users aged between 13 — yep, 13 — and 35 were paid $20 to download the Research app and install it. (Minors were required to get consent from their parents.)

Once installed, Research monitored everything that user did on their phone and fed that information straight back to Facebook HQ.

Facebook created the Research app using a kind of side channel in the Apple App Store. Normally, they wouldn’t have been allowed to build an app with such invasive privacy settings. But Apple has an enterprise option that lets companies put apps on the App Store that aren’t meant for public consumption. Instead, they’re apps in testing or apps designed for employees of that company — a different matter altogether.

Facebook has been kicked out of this channel by Apple, which is causing havoc at facebook as workers there can’t access the apps they’re used to using to do their jobs.

But it’s the harm done to user trust that will last the longest and cost Facebook the dearest.

Younger people are already migrating off the platform; Facebook is for your gran to wish you a happy birthday, not a cool place where the kids hang, however fiercely Zuck wishes otherwise.

And once you know Facebook has been literally bribing your kids to let it spy on them, how eager are you to go Like something?

They had to do this through third-party locations

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