Facebook can’t seem to keep itself out of trouble

Facebook has apparently been paying customers $20 each to trade away their privacy to install a VPN which analyses usage, sidestepping Apple’s App Store policies.

The research initiative is similar to Onavo Protect, which was effectively banned by Apple last year, rewarding teenagers and adults to download the app to give the social media giant root access to network traffic which most likely would have been decrypted otherwise. According to TechCrunch, this is a violation of the App Store policies.

While $20 per user might seem like a huge amount, the data which is collected is incredibly valuable. Not only will it be able to identify usage habits, it will also contribute to competitor research. In theory, Facebook would be able to build a much more detailed competitor landscape, identifying potential threats to its business. The UK government has already unveiled documents which confirm Facebook uses the platform to inhibit competitive threats, so this type of data collection simply adds another nefarious cog to the devious machine.

According to the TechCrunch investigation, if Facebook makes full use of the freedoms granted through this app it would be able to access private messages from social media and other messaging apps, photos and videos, emails, web browsing activity and location information. What is worth noting is that is has not been confirmed whether this is the case, though Facebook could be heading for another privacy debacle.

This is of course not the first time Facebook has ventured into the murky world of surveillance. Back in 2014, the increasingly suspect social media giant acquired Onavo for $120 million. This VPN allowed users to minimize data leakage and improve the effectiveness of tariffs, but it also allowed Facebook to access deep analytics about what other apps they were using. This insight reportedly gave Facebook the confidence to make such a significant bet on WhatsApp.

The app came under pressure when it was revealed Facebook was stepping across the line, collecting information when the screen was off for example. Apple changed the App Store policies to ensure apps could only collect information which was critical to functionality, though by this point Facebook had a huge amount of competitive intelligence, and seemingly lit the fires of ambition.

One question which you really have to ask is how many lives Facebook has left. The last 12 months have been a carousel of scandal, saga and suspicion. Whether it is Cambridge Analytica, Friendly Fraud, fake news, influencing elections, violating privacy or snooping on customers, Facebook has poked and prodded the confidence and trust of the digital society. How much longer can this go on for?

Every time a new headline emerges about some nefarious or suspect activity from Facebook, the world much be getting closer to taking disruptive action. More and more people distrust the brand, but due to its influence in and penetration through digital society, usage of its applications have not been damaged much. You have to wonder how many more of these headlines the business can take; maybe it won’t be long before the Facebook empire is broken up.

Investigation claims most mobile VPN apps are run by dodgy companies

An investigation by Top10VPN.com has concluded more than half of the most popular VPN apps are run by ‘secretive companies with Chinese ownership’.

The whole point of VPN apps is to protect your mobile online behaviour from third party snooping. Chinese companies, however, are regularly accused of collaborating with the Chinese state in order to facilitate espionage activities. While there is limited concrete proof of this kind of activity, VPN users are entitled to know who it is that’s claiming to protect their privacy, and this investigation alleges that is being deliberately concealed.

“What consumers tend to forget is that in order for VPNs to protect their online privacy, all their internet traffic must pass through their VPN provider’s servers and can be potentially logged and shared with third parties,” said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN.com

“Leading VPN providers have detailed privacy policies that preclude them from monitoring this traffic. Yet many of the most popular free VPN apps for smartphones have nothing of the sort in their policies – meaning that there’s a really disconcerting ambiguity about what is happening to this data.

“To add to this is the fact that so many of these VPNs have Chinese ownership – and some are even based in the country’s flagship technology parks. It’s been widely reported that China has really clamped down on local VPN providers in recent months which raises questions about why these companies – which have such large international user bases – have been allowed to continue operating.”

Migliano is especially appalled at the lack gatekeeping and quality control from Google and Apple in this case. We were genuinely shocked that listings for these apps contained false information and links to such substandard resources that it’s clear there can be but minimal oversight of these apps,” he said. “This is a dereliction of duty from Apple and Google, whose lax controls are potentially leaving their customers open to wholesale data harvesting.”

Top10VPN.com presumably make money by people using its service to switch VPN apps, so it has a clear vested interest in urging people to do just that, but that doesn’t mean it’s findings aren’t significant. At the same time just because an app is Chinese that doesn’t mean it’s dodgy and the substantive issue here is about transparency and quality control in general. It makes you wonder how many other mobile apps are something other than they appear to be.

Virgin Media launches easy mobile VPN service

Virgin Media Business reckons it can tap into the growing remote working trend by enabling people to access their work VPNs from their mobile devices.

The new service is called Business Anywhere and is set to launch in the UK in January 2018. The company reckons this is a first, but people have been able to access corporate VPNs remotely for some time so it looks like this is more of an initiative to make it easier.

‘This new system does away with time-consuming and awkward verification processes, replacing user-authentication with automatic SIM card authentication,’ says the press release.  ‘Once activated, the SIM creates a direct link into a company’s IPVPN using part of the existing wired line. Mobile data is routed automatically into this private network, removing the need to log-on or for the user to manually verify the device.’

“We know that businesses want simple, secure IT solutions that just work,” reiterated Rob Orr, Executive Director – Sales, for Virgin Media Business. “Business Anywhere allows remote workers to access everything they need to collaborate while away from the office. It sets a new standard for remote working by allowing people to carry their corporate network with them wherever they go. Our customers will no longer be constrained by the physical footprint of their office, staff will spend less time travelling, improving productivity whilst cutting costs.”

This new service uses the EE network for the VPN connection. It does seem quite handy but it remains to be seen whether the relatively straightforward process of logging into a VPN the old-fashioned way is a sufficient pain-point for companies to go to the extra expense of subscribing to an extra service. Demand for this sort of thing may be restricted to workers that spend pretty much all their time in the field.