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What are Google Wi-Fi Assistant and Google VPN?

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

November 8, 2016

Google is now rolling out a new feature to all Nexus and Pixel phones in selected countries. Known as Wi-Fi assistant, it includes a built-in Google VPN. Naturally, here at BestVPN.com, our ears pricked up at the news…

What is Wi-Fi Assistant?

Wi-Fi assistant is an outgrowth of Project Fi, Google’s mobile network service. Unlike regular cellular network providers, Project Fi does not supply internet access directly to customers.

Google has instead partnered with Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Three. It has also authorized over a million Wi-Fi hotspots that meet certain criteria. Project Fi customers can seamlessly jump between these third party mobile networks and open Wi-Fi hotspots in order to get the best possible signal.

Project Fi is currently only available to US customers, but Google has partnered with international providers so that customers can use their data allowances abroad. In order to use Project Fi, the use of a recent “Google phone” is required. This means a Nexus 5X, Nexus 6, or Pixel phone.

The feature that allows users to automatically switch between open Wi-Fi networks is called Wi-Fi assistant. In order to help protect users from rogue Wi-Fi hotspot operators, all Wi-Fi assistant connections are protected by a Google VPN.

Google is now extending the Wi-Fi assistant feature (complete with Google VPN) to all Nexus devices in the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Nordic countries that run Android 5.1 Lollipop+.

Google VPN

This even includes older devices such as the Nexus 4 phone and my aging Nexus 7 tablet.

In order to enable Wi-Fi assistant on your Nexus device, go to Settings -> Google -> Networking -> Wi-Fi assistant, and toggle the On/Off switch.

google-vpn-2

When connected to an open Wi-Fi network via Wi-Fi assistant, your Notification bar will show the VPN icon. Additionally, your Wi-Fi connection will say “Connected via Wi-Fi assistant.”

A major limitation of the feature, however, is that Wi-Fi assistant only works if the public network does not require you to sign in. In practice, this probably rules out 90% of public Wi-Fi networks!

So What is Google VPN?

As already noted, whenever you connect to an open Wi-Fi hotspot using Wi-Fi assistant, that connection is protected a VPN operated by Google.

This means that even if a hacker somehow manages to intercept your data, for example by tricking Wi-Fi assistant into connecting to an “evil twin” hotspot or packet-sniffing your Wi-Fi data, the data is safe because it is encrypted.

Google VPN, therefore, has a very specific purpose: to protect your data when accessing random and potentially unsafe public Wi-Fi hotspots. This VPN is provided by Google for free.

Although not really its purpose, it will also hide what you get up to on the internet from your mobile provider, but only when connecting to the internet via public Wi-Fi hotspots with Wi-Fi assistant.

Google VPN Vs Third Party Commercial VPN Services

What Google VPN does not do, which a regular commercial VPN service does is:

  • Hide your internet activity from your ISP and mobile provider at all times. This includes when using your mobile connection and home Wi-Fi.
  • Geo-spoof your location so you can watch services such as US Netflix and BBC iPlayer wherever you live in the world.
  • P2P torrent download in safety.

A third party commercial VPN will also protect you when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot. And it can be used with almost every mobile device and laptop available (not just Google ones).

Google VPN Security and Privacy

I have been unable to discover what kind of encryption Google uses for its VPN service. Given that this is Google, however, I think it safe to assume the service is secure.

Whether it is private, however, is a very different matter. After all, Google’s entire business model is to know as much as it can about you in order to target highly personalized ads at you. As with any VPN service (unless using VPN through Tor), Google will be able to monitor and log what you get up to on the internet when using its VPN.

Google is happy to track you as your surf the internet and to automatically scan your emails. So it is not unreasonable to assume that it will use data collected to try to sell you stuff. Or hand it over to the NSA.

Contrast this to commercial VPN providers, many of which rely on maintaining their customer’s privacy as a business model.

Google VPN Privacy Policy

In addition to its general-purpose Privacy Policy, Google has this to say about privacy when using Wi-Fi assistant,

To make open Wi-Fi networks safer, Wi-Fi assistant uses a virtual private network (VPN). The VPN protects your data from being seen by other users of the open network. 

When a VPN is active, you’ll see a “Network may be monitored” message. Google monitors system data. When you’re securely connected to a website (by HTTPS), VPN operators, like Google, can’t record your content. Google uses system data sent through VPN connections to:

  • Provide and improve Wi-Fi assistant, including the virtual private network (VPN)
  • Monitor for abuse
  • Comply with applicable laws and regulations, or as required by court or government orders.

As always when using a VPN, connecting to HTTPS websites will hide your activity on that website from your VPN provider (Google in this case). But it still knows that you visited the website.

Conclusion

Thanks to the fact that Google Wi-Fi assistant only works if the public network does not require you to sign in, most users are unlikely to find much practical use for the feature.

If you do find a use, then it is much better to be protected by a VPN than not when using unknown and potentially highly insecure public hotspots. However, commercial VPN services will protect you in many more situations, are much more flexible, and are unlikely to spy on you and sell your data for profit.

Douglas Crawford

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

4 responses to “What are Google Wi-Fi Assistant and Google VPN?

  1. There are plenty of free open WiFi hotspots in most cities that don’t require logins. Much more than the %10 of available hotspot connections this article assumes. I’m typing this from a typical restaurant in the US that has an open WiFi connection, and currently using Google WiFi assistant. I believe it has a wider reach than this article accounts for, it would be interesting to delve into legitimate statistics for the amount of WiFi hotspots in the US at public restaurants/etc that actually offer free, open WiFi with no sign-on and then update that %90 figure stated to something more accurate 😉

    1. Hi Dale,

      You may have a good point. I got that statistic from somewhere, but can’t remember where now. As I don’t live in the US, I simply took it at face value. When I have time, I will try to look into the availability of open WiFi in the US. I am very busy at the moment, though, so if you want to post any links here yourself, it will probably help ensure the article is updated sooner rather than later :).

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