Court documents unveil Facebook's secret tracking of Snapchat traffic

The operation was called “Project Ghostbusters”

Court documents unveil Facebook's secret tracking of Snapchat traffic

A federal court in California released court documents on Tuesday, shedding light on a secretive operation carried out by Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms. This covert operation, known as “Project Ghostbusters,” began in 2016 with the strategic goal of decrypting and intercepting network connections between Snapchat users and the company's servers.[1]

These records, discovered as part of a class-action lawsuit between customers and Meta, Facebook's parent company, reveal the extremes to which Facebook sought to acquire insights into Snapchat user behavior in order to gain a competitive advantage over its rival.

This operation was not an isolated endeavor; it represented Facebook's broader policy of surveilling competitors under the pretense of market research. The term “Project Ghostbusters,” a humorous reference to Snapchat's ghostly emblem, belies the serious consequences of such surveillance, indicating how far Facebook was willing to go to maintain its dominance in the social media world.

The operation was based on a complex technological framework designed to circumvent the encryption algorithms that protect user data on Snapchat. This was accomplished by the acquisition and use of Onavo, a product purportedly promoted as a VPN service (which was shut down in 2019).[2]

However, Onavo's inclusion into Facebook's strategic arsenal served a more sinister purpose: it enabled a “man-in-the-middle” attack,[3] allowing Facebook to secretly monitor and analyze encrypted traffic. This strategy gave Facebook a window into Snapchat users' behaviors and preferences, providing crucial knowledge that could be used to tweak Facebook's own services and perhaps reduce Snapchat's market share.

The main goal was to implement tactics to rival Snapchat

The key component of “Project Ghostbusters” was an extraordinary but controversial technique for breaking through the encryption barrier that protected conversations between Snapchat users and its servers. Using technologies obtained through the acquisition of Onavo, Facebook created a sophisticated surveillance apparatus capable of carrying out a “man-in-the-middle” attack.

This cyber espionage strategy entailed intercepting digital connections between two parties, in this example, the user and Snapchat's servers, in order to decrypt and analyze the data being transmitted. This allowed Facebook not just to map Snapchat user habits and preferences, but also to change its operations in response to Snapchat's growing impact among social media users.

The impact of this operation expanded beyond Snapchat, as Facebook expanded its surveillance to encompass other key firms such as Amazon and YouTube.[4] The ethical implications of such surveillance are significant, raising concerns about the balance between competitive strategy and user privacy.

META keeps compromising user privacy

The public disclosure of “Project Ghostbusters” and the resulting legal repercussions have sent Facebook into an upsurge of controversy and legal investigation. The class action lawsuit filed by dissatisfied consumers reflects rising dissatisfaction with tech and the company's opaque data collection tactics.

This complaint, based on recently leaked documents, accuses Facebook of fraudulent methods such as covertly obtaining and analyzing user data to limit competition. Such legal issues not only jeopardize Facebook's public image but also emphasize the critical need for regulatory frameworks that can keep up with the rapid developments and ethical quandaries of the internet industry.

Furthermore, the example of Project Ghostbusters has sparked public debate about the ethics of monitoring and data privacy, serving as a catalyst for requests for increased openness and ethical behavior from technology businesses. As regulators and public society wrestle with these challenges, the incident highlights the delicate balance between using technology to drive company innovation and protecting individual privacy rights.

About the author
Gabriel E. Hall
Gabriel E. Hall - Passionate web researcher

Gabriel E. Hall is a passionate malware researcher who has been working for 2-spyware for almost a decade.

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