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Facebook’s Onavo app booted from Apple’s App Store over privacy

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been an outspoken critic of Facebook’s philosophy toward privacy. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg News)

A growing rift between Facebook and Apple over privacy grew even wider Wednesday, after Facebook’s virtual private network app Onavo was removed from the App Store for failing to comply with privacy guidelines. Its removal Wednesday was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

While Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been an outspoken critic of Facebook’s philosophy toward privacy, this is the first time Apple’s taken such an action against a Facebook app.

Onavo, an app designed to redirect Web traffic to hide a person’s true location, was also sending information back to Facebook to reveal more about people’s habits, according to the social network. The app can reveal what apps people use and how frequently people use them — information that Facebook used to study the popularity of apps. The company used Onavo’s consumer behavior data to analyze whether it should purchase WhatsApp, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Facebook in a statement said that it’s been transparent about the way Onavo processes data. “We’ve always been clear when people download Onavo about the information that is collected and how it is used. As a developer on Apple’s platform we follow the rules they’ve put in place."

Facebook declined to comment on whether it would retool the app and submit it to Apple again.

When Cook was asked by NBC News how he would handle the Facebook privacy debacle if it had happened to Apple, he said: “What would I do? I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Facebook's purchase of Onavo was seen as a move to hurt innovation

In a statement of its own, Apple indicated that Facebook’s app specifically did not comply with rules it put in place this June. The new guidelines limit the volume of data apps can collect and also require that data collected by an app cannot be used to build marketing or other profiles.

“With the latest update to our guidelines, we made it explicitly clear that apps should not collect information about which other apps are installed on a user’s device for the purposes of analytics or advertising/marketing and must make it clear what user data will be collected and how it will be used,” Apple said in a statement.

Others have criticized Facebook’s Onavo app, which it purchased for $150 million in 2013. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked Facebook about how it uses Onavo’s data following hearings with the social network’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, in May. The company replied that it analyzes Onavo data as a market research tool and to improve Facebook products and services, but does not link Onavo data to individual accounts.

It also said that anyone who downloads Onavo sees a notification about its relationship to Facebook.

Staff writer Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.