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Facebook launched a secret project to intercept user data from rival platforms, documents claim

Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook staff he wanted reliable analytics about Snapchat traffic, court filings say (AFP via Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook staff he wanted reliable analytics about Snapchat traffic, court filings say (AFP via Getty Images)

Facebook launched a secret project to intercept user data from rival platforms like Snapchat, according to documents revealed as part of a class action lawsuit in the US.

A California federal court has released documents that shed light on Project Ghostbusters. This was a 2016 Facebook strategy to intercept user data and analyse it, despite such data usually being encrypted. This technique would go on to be used on YouTube and Amazon users, according to court documents.

“Whenever someone asks a question about Snapchat, the answer is usually that because their traffic is encrypted we have no analytics about them,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an internal Facebook email in June 2016.

“Given how quickly they’re growing, it seems important to figure out a new way to get reliable analytics about them. Perhaps we need to do panels or write custom software. You should figure out how to do this.”

According to the documents, Project Ghostbusters was the response. This was years before Facebook’s parent rebranded to Meta, which happened in 2021.

Project Ghostbusters involved the use of tool developed by Onavo, an analytics firm acquired by Facebook in 2013 for £158 million, based on today’s exchange rates.

Onavo claimed to offer privacy-boosting VPN software, but actually employed spyware. This is why it was able to capture a user’s app data before it was encrypted. Onavo was closed in 2019 after TechCrunch brought the company’s activities to light.

The class action lawsuit that revealed these documents was filed in 2020 by Maximilian Klein and Sarah Grabert.

It claims Facebook “consistently and intentionally deceived consumers about the data privacy protections it provided to its users” and “exploited the rich data it deceptively extracted from its users to identify nascent competitors and then ‘acquire, copy, or kill’ these firms”.

The Standard has approached Meta for comment.