ACCC takes on Facebook over controversial Onavo app

ACCC takes on Facebook over controversial Onavo app

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is taking Facebook to court alleging the company's misled consumers about its controversial Onavo Protect mobile app.

The consumer watchdog has begun legal proceedings in the Federal Court against Facebook and two of its subsidiaries for false, misldeading and deceptive conduct in its promotion of Onavo to Australian consumers.

The free downloadable app was purported to provide an extra layer of security and data encryption to secure personal information of users on public WiFi networks.

ACCC says users were told the Onavo Protect app was keep their personal activity data private, protected and secret, and that the data would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect's products.

The ACCC says Onavo Protect actually collected, aggregated and used significant amounts of users' personal activity data for Facebook's commercial benefit.

This included details about Onavo Protect users' internet and app activity, such as records of every app they accessed and the number of seconds each day they spent using those apps.

Facebook rolled out the app after acquiring Israel-based mobile web analytics company Onavo in 2013. The legal action launched by the ACCC relates to events that occurred between 1 February 2016 and October 2017.

Facebook withdrew the Onavo app from the market in early 2019 following a swirl of controversy over its access to personal data.

"Through Onavo Protect, Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook's promotion of this app," says ACCC chair Rod Sims.

"Consumers often use VPN (virtual private network) services because they care about their online privacy, and that is what this Facebook product claimed to offer. In fact, Onavo Protect channelled significant volumes of their personal activity data straight back to Facebook.

"We believe that the conduct deprived Australian consumers of the opportunity to make an informed choice about the collection and use of their personal activity data by Facebook and Onavo."

The Onavo Protect app was marketed by Facebook with assurances that any data collected would not be used for any purpose other than providing Onavo Protect's products.

ACCC says this data was used to support Facebook's market research activities, including identifying potential future acquisition targets.

The ACCC is seeking the court to impose an unspecified fine on Facebook.

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