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Facebook to shut down Onavo app that harvested user data for market research

Facebook will shut down its Onavo VPN app and end its unpaid market research programs in response to the latest privacy scandal involving the social network.

An investigative report by TechCrunch last month revealed that Onavo code was repurposed to be used in the Facebook Research app, which gathered user data and examined their smartphone activities. In exchange, Facebook sent up to $20 per month to the users, whose ages ranged from 13 to 35.

The data the app collected was widespread, and even included screenshots of Amazon purchase histories, according to the report. The extent of the data that the app harvested was unclear, but the level of access suggested that private chats, emails, location, and other sensitive information may have been gathered.

Apple blocked the Facebook Research app from its App Store after the report was published. The Onavo app, meanwhile, was taken down last year from the App Store due to privacy concerns, and now Facebook has voluntarily removed it from the Google Play Store.

“Market research helps companies build better products for people. We are shifting our focus to reward-based market research which means we’re going to end the Onavo program,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

Facebook acquired Onavo in 2013, reportedly for somewhere between $150 million and $200 million. Facebook framed the app as a way for users to reduce data usage, block dangerous websites, and keep traffic safe, as it functioned as a VPN that redirected online activity through a third-party server. However, even as Onavo protected users from being tracked by service providers, it collected user data that was exclusively accessed by Facebook.

With Facebook also removing Onavo from the Google Play Store, it appears that the company is simply avoiding any further issues with Google, as it already had its fair share of trouble with Apple. Onavo will continue working as a VPN for users who already have the app installed, to give them time to seek a replacement.

Facebook also said that it will stop recruitment of Facebook Research testers, as the social network attempts to recover from the public perception that it is hiding behind secrets. With Onavo and Facebook Research as examples, Facebook may want to simply be more upfront about its market research programs in the future.

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