The ACCC has announced plans to take Facebook to the Federal Court for deceptive conduct and misleading consumers while promoting a privacy app designed to protect users’ data, while it purportedly acted in the opposite manner.
The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) says that Facebook misled Australian consumers when promoting the company’s Onavo Protect mobile privacy app in Australia, and is now taking Facebook and two subsidiaries to the Federal Court.
The Onavo Protect mobile application was made available for free, and was presented to Australian consumers as a privacy-focussed app providing VPN services that protected a user’s information that would not be used by Facebook or sold to third parties.
Now, however, the ACCC alleges that the Onavo Protect app collected, aggregated and used “significant amounts of users’ personal activity data for Facebook’s commercial benefit,” according to a statement from the ACCC.
In response, the ACCC has lodged proceedings in the Federal Court against Facebook, Inc. and two subsidiaries – Facebook Israel Ltd and Onavo, Inc. – for deceptive conduct and misleading consumers as to the privacy implications of using the app, which was presented as the opposite to Australian consumers.
The ACCC says that the Onavo Protect app collected users’ internet and application activity, including “records of every app they accessed and the number of seconds each day they spend using those apps.”
This data, according to the ACCC, was then used to consolidate Facebook’s market research activities, including ways to use this data to identify potential future acquisition targets.
The ACCC’s Chair, Rod Sims has issued a statement saying that “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.”
“Consumers often use VPN 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,” Sims continued to explain.
“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.”
Sims continued to explain that the Onavo Protect website states that the app would “save, measure and protect users’ mobile data, while advertisements on Facebook’s website and appl included statements such as ‘Keep it secret. Keep it safe… Onavo Protect, from Facebook.”
Onavo, Inc. and Onavo Mobile Ltd were mobile data analytics companies that were acquired by Facebook in 2013, whereby Onavo Mobile became Facebook Israel Ltd.
Interestingly, Apple decided to remove Onavo Protect from the App Store in 2018, citing non-compliance with its developer terms specific to the collection of information about other apps installed on a user’s device. It was removed 12-months later from the Google Play store in 2019.