Facebook Used Its VPN to Spy on Other Companies, Users
At this point, Facebook’s fundamentally bankrupt behavior isn’t a contested point — just an established fact. That viewpoint, cynical as it may sound, was fundamentally confirmed by the release of 250 pages worth of emails from the UK Parliament, which collectively demonstrate that yes, the company engages in the bad behavior we’ve suspected that it does.
Specifically, the emails show that FB used preferential whitelists to determine which companies would receive access to data and which would not, that it made these arrangements based on how much value the developer brought to the relationship, that it collected data on who Android users were calling even though it knew that Android users would not respond well to this if it should ever become public, and that it used its VPN service, Onavo, to gather information on which applications Facebook users were using on mobile devices, with an overall goal of determining which services it should attempt to acquire to prevent any companies from becoming a threat to Facebook’s dominance. Hat-tip to our sister site Mashable for the initial coverage.
We’re trying to enable people to share everything they want, and to do it on Facebook. Sometimes the best way to enable people to share something is to have a developer build a special purpose app or network for that type of content and to make that app social by having Facebook plug into it. However, that may be good for the world but it’s not good for us unless people also share back to Facebook and that content increases the value of our network. So ultimately, I think the purpose of platform – even the read side – is to increase sharing back into Facebook.
That’s not news if you follow what Facebook practically does, but it’s worth pointing out how large the gap is between what companies like Facebook publicly claim they want to do and what they actually do. There was always going to be tension between Facebook’s desire to encourage openness and sharing and the degree to which it exploited its relationships with end users to promote its own financial gain. The problem is that Facebook appears to have come down on the “promote our own financial gain” side of the equation every single time the question arose. Take, for example, the subject of Android permissions and call log monitoring. The chain starts with an update from Michael LeBeau:
He guys, as you know all the growth team is planning on shipping a permissions update on Android at the end of this month. They are going to include the ‘read call log’ permission, which will trigger the Android permissions dialog on update, requiring users to accept the update. They will then provide an in-app opt in NUX for a feature that lets you continuously upload your SMS and call log history to Facebook to be used for improving things like PYMK, coefficient calculation, feed ranking etc. This is a pretty highrisk thing to do from a PR perspective but it appears that the growth team will charge ahead and do it.
Yul Kwon – The Growth team is now exploring a path where we only request Read Call Log permission, and hold off on requesting any other permissions for now. ‘Based on their initial testing, it seems this would allow us to upgrade users without subjecting them to an Android permissions dialog at all. It would still be a breaking change, so users would have to click to upgrade, but no permissions dialog screen.
There is literally no discussion of the fact that users don’t want to have their call logs read by Facebook and were not given permission to opt into this change. The Onavo usage falls under the same paradigm. Facebook used data shared by Onavo to determine how people were using rival applications, and the data it gathered from this application was used to decide to buy WhatsApp for $19B, as well as to make the $3B offer for Snapchat that Snapchat declined.
Facebook Targeted Rival Companies
When Twitter introduced Vine, it was an immediate (if ultimately short-term) success. Facebook, however, saw the situation differently. From Justin Osofsky:
Twitter launched Vine today which lets you shoot multiple short video segments to make one single, 6-second video. As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision. MZ – ‘Yup, go for it.’
Why? Because Facebook was simultaneously paranoid about boosting its competitors. You can argue that this makes sense, given that the company has no interest in driving communication to a rival platform, but again, it cuts against the core message of what Facebook is Supposed To Be according to the words of its founder. Facebook, as described by Facebook, is a platform for sharing content that you want to share. In reality, it’s a platform for sharing what you want to share, provided it benefits Facebook. In order to ensure that your sharing does benefit Facebook, the company set up its own spy shop, sucking data off people’s Android devices and on phones that had Onavo installed, with the absolute rock-bottom minimum amount of information legally required to disclose these facts.
Facebook’s laughable defense to this? “Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform,” the company said. “But the facts are clear: We’ve never sold people’s data.”
Whoever claimed it did? Selling data has never been Facebook’s problem. Hoovering it up like a fat kid on cake, in total defiance of any standard of privacy, is the actual issue here.
Now Read: No One Wants to Talk About How Completely We Were Lied to, Facebook’s Free VPN App Pulled from Apple App Store for Privacy Violations, and Facebook Admits Its New Portal Device Is Just Another Way to Spy on You