Facebook CEO gets grilled over VPN fiasco

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The chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Facebook recently testified before Congress at a nearly six-hour House Judiciary hearing in which they were questioned as part of an antitrust investigation.

When asked about last year's controversial Onavo VPN app by Representative Hank Johnson, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg played coy and acted as if he knew much less about the app than he likely did.

The social media giant first acquired Onavo back in 2013 for close to $200m with the aim of using its VPN service to secretly gather data about how consumers users their smartphones. Facebook then released an app called Onavo Project which Apple banned from the App Store for collecting and reporting usage data. As a result of the controversy surrounding its Onavo Protect, Facebook then began to refer to its Research app as Project Atlas which it used to continue collecting user data in blatant disregard to Apple's policies.

In order to get users to install its Research app on their smartphones, the company decided to pay them up to $20 per month. However, it was later discovered that in addition to adults, Facebook had also been paying teenagers to install the app. At the time, TechCrunch broke the story and Apple issued a ban, though the social media company claimed it had removed the app voluntarily.

Playing coy

Rep. Johnson began his line of questioning by asking Zuckerberg if Facebook was kicked out of the App Store once Apple had learned that the social media giant was using Onavo to conduct surveillance on users. While this was the case, Zuckerberg said that the company “took the app out after Apple changed their policies on VPN apps”.

Apple did not change its policy on VPN apps but rather on businesses misusing its Enterprise Certificate program which is meant for internal company apps only. Facebook distributed its Research app to users as if they were employees receiving an app from the company. In response, Apple revoked all of the social network's certificates and broke Facebook's own apps in the process.

When asked if Facebook had paid teenagers to sell their privacy by installing the Facebook Research app, Zuckerberg once again said he was unfamiliar with app despite the fact that he most likely wasn't. Zuckerberg went on to say that businesses use surveys and data to better understand how people are using their products and while true, this wasn't the case with its VPN app. Facebook's CEO may have skirted Rep. Johnson's questions, but he later backpedaled, saying:

“In response to Congressman Johnson’s question, before I said that I wasn’t familiar with the Facebook Research app when I wasn’t familiar with that name for it. I just want to be clear that I do recall we used an app for research and it’s since been discontinued.”

  • Also check out our complete list of the best VPN services

Via TechCrunch

Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.