April 15, 2024

Meta has lots of data through Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, but that’s not enough for them. Court filings unsealed last week allege Meta created an internal effort to spy on Snapchat in a secret initiative called “Project Ghostbusters.” Meta did so through Onavo, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service the company offered between 2016 and 2019 that, ultimately, wasn’t private at all.

“Whenever someone asks a question about Snapchat, the answer is usually that because their traffic is encrypted we have no analytics about them,” said Mark Zuckerberg in an email to three Facebook executives in 2016, unsealed in Meta’s antitrust case on Saturday. “It seems important to figure out a new way to get reliable analytics about them… You should figure out how to do this.”

Thus, Project Ghostbusters was born. It’s Meta’s in-house wiretapping tool to spy on data analytics from Snapchat starting in 2016, later used on YouTube and Amazon. This involved creating “kits” that can be installed on iOS and Android devices, to intercept traffic for certain apps, according to the filings. This was described as a “man-in-the-middle” approach to get data on Facebook’s rivals, but users of Onavo were the “men in the middle.”

Meta’s Onavo unit has a history of using invasive techniques to collect data on Facebook’s users. Meta acquired Onavo from an Israeli firm over 10 years ago, promising users private networking, as most VPNs do. However, the service was reportedly used to spy on rival social media apps through tens of millions of people who downloaded Onavo. It gave Facebook valuable intel about competitors, and this week’s court filings seem to confirm that.

A team of senior executives and roughly 41 lawyers worked on Project Ghostbusters, according to court filings. The group was heavily concerned with whether to continue the program in the face of press scrutiny. Facebook ultimately shut down Onavo in 2019 after Apple booted the VPN from its app store.

Prosecutors also allege that Facebook violated the United States Wiretap Act, which prohibits the intentional procurement of another person’s electronic communications. Onavo could also be considered straight spyware, but also seems to fall under the definition of wiretapping, according to prosecutors.

The court filings show chats and emails that depict Zuckerberg as being directly involved in these communications. In 2019, an email was sent to Zuckerberg explicitly asking for his decision on whether SSL decryption (Project Ghostbusters) should stop. However, Meta denies its CEO was anywhere near this.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the court filings.

Access to a competitor’s traffic analytics would have allowed Facebook a significant advantage when it comes to selling to advertisers. Meta has become a dominant force in the advertising industry in the last decade, and competitors like Snapchat don’t hold a candle to Meta’s analytics. Prosecutors allege Project Ghostbusters harmed competition in the ad industry, adding weight to their central argument that Meta is a monopoly in social media.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo.

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