Facebook’s new “Protect” feature is actually a type of spyware

Facebook's Onavo VPN

There’s a new button on your iOS Facebook app called “Protect.” If you click it, under the “Explore” section, you’ll be taken to the app store and told to download Facebook’s own VPN service, called Onavo. If you’re concerned about protecting your online privacy—and you should be—this may seem like a great idea. But beware, Onavo doesn’t protect your privacy at all.

A VPN, or virtual private network, is an essential tool for every internet user. It enables your mobile device or laptop to connect to the internet via an encrypted “tunnel” that sits between you and the website you want to visit. This tunnel ensures that your information is scrambled and that no one—including your ISP, government agents, or hackers—can see who you are or what you’re doing online.

All of this makes Facebook’s Onavo offering seem mighty appealing, right?

As with a traditional VPN, Onavo will enable you to connect to the internet via this encrypted tunnel. However, to understand why you might not want to jump on the Onavo bandwagon, consider this:

When Facebook bought Onavo back in 2013, it was for a very specific reason: to collect and analyze the data that Onavo users sent. Basically, Facebook could keep tabs on the internet habits of people using the software, even allowing them to get insights into other social media companies (because the users visiting these sites were connected through Onavo).

In short, the purchase of Onavo offered Facebook a way to peek in on its users.

This essentially means that the new “Protect” feature that’s now been added to the Facebook app on iOS is nothing more than a type of spyware. Sure, it most definitely is still a VPN, and it can certainly protect you from hackers, but it’s also going to be pulling all of your private data.

For its part, Facebook isn’t trying to hide this. If you’re willing to dig, you’ll find this disclaimer:

“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.”

The part that remains sketchy here is Facebook’s intended purpose. It isn’t there to “Protect” you, it’s there for Facebook to get a leg up on the competition. Are people watching more videos on YouTube than Facebook, for example? Are new competitors starting to gain traction? In other words, this is a deliberate attempt to keep tabs on what you’re up to when you’re not using the Facebook app.

So don’t think of Onavo as a Virtual Private Network. Because there’s nothing private about it.

With that said, it’s pretty simple to ensure that Facebook isn’t tracking your online activities via Onavo. Just don’t click on the “Protect” option, located above the “Settings” menu in the “Explore” list.

However, you shouldn’t let this deter you from seeking out ways to protect yourself online. A trusted VPN will never collect or share your information. So you can still get all the security benefits while preserving your online privacy. In our (somewhat biased, of course) opinion here at Hotspot Shield, every user on the internet should protect themselves with a VPN. But with thousands of VPNs on the market, you should do your research and make sure you select a VPN service you feel comfortable with.

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