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Facebook knows what people are doing on their phones even if they don’t use the social network

The information is being used to help the company beat its rivals

Aatif Sulleyman
Monday 14 August 2017 14:52 BST
The logo of the social network Facebook is seen on a beach during the Cannes Lions in Cannes, France, June 21, 2017
The logo of the social network Facebook is seen on a beach during the Cannes Lions in Cannes, France, June 21, 2017 (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)

Facebook knows what millions of people do on their phones, even if they don’t actually use the social network, a new report claims.

The company is claimed to have been using data gathered from another firm for detailed insights on people’s app and website usage habits, such as which apps they use, how frequently they use them and even how long they use them for.

This information has also been used to shape Facebook’s product roadmap, and led to it buying WhatsApp and continuing to rip Snapchat’s Stories feature.

It's so precise that it allowed Facebook keep tabs on how many Snapchat posts users sent each day, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The setup essentially helps Facebook quickly work out which apps and websites it is competing with for screen time, and makes it a lot easier for the company to target and beat them.

We've asked Facebook for a comment, and will update this article if the company issues one.

It has been getting the data from Onavo Protect, a free VPN app that claims to help “keep you and your data safe when you go online”, which was created by a company Facebook bought in 2013.

The app is available on both Android and iOS, and has reportedly been downloaded by around 24 million users.

According to people familiar with the system, when anyone with Onavo Protect on their phone opens an app or visits a website, Onavo redirects the traffic to Facebook’s servers.

The details are logged in a database, and Facebook’s product team is then able to analyse it.

Apple and Google also have the ability to access similar information about their rivals' apps on Android and iOS, the Wall Street Journal adds, though it isn't clear if they've been using the data to improve their own products.

Though Onavo states that it “analyzes information about your mobile data and app use” and may share the data with “affiliates”, it’s likely that many Protect users failed to read the small print before downloading the app.

This setup reportedly allowed Facebook to figure out just how devastating an impact the rollout of Stories on Instagram had on Snapchat’s popularity and growth, long before Snapchat released any of the details itself.

The findings gathered from Onavo encouraged the social network to also add Stories clones to Facebook, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, adding to Snapchat’s woe.

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