Google has emerged as the most powerful internet company over the last decade. It controls what pages you arrive at after a search. Google Chrome expands Google's horizon beyond your Google search and into your entire browsing activity. Furthermore, Google Goggles wants to see what you see and Android brings your mobile activity into Google's platform. A staggering amount of your online presence happens in and around Google's ecosystem. Now, Google is filling the gaps by launching its own data network and its own VPN service as part of Project Fi.
Offering a public data network has its own security concerns and Google has taken measures to keep its users secure from the threats of open WiFi networks. Project Fi's wireless assistant app includes a Virtual Private Network or a VPN that has come to be known as Google VPN. This VPN mode will automatically come into action when you switch over from a carrier network to a public WiFi network. Logging on to online accounts over open WiFi networks has always been a security hazard and a major contributor to hacked account. Google VPN brings a seamless service to take care of this problem.
How to Use Google VPN?
Google VPN is available as part of Google WiFi Assistant on unlocked phones running Android 5.1. This makes Google VPN available to all Android 5.1 and higher Pixel and Nexus devices in the US, the UK, Mexico, Canada and a couple of Nordic countries regardless of whether you are on Project Fi. However, Google VPN is also available in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and a couple of European countries if you are on Project Fi.
Settings -> Google -> Networking -> Wi-Fi Assistant
The moment you connect to an open WiFi with WiFi Assistant, Google VPN will encrypt your connection and secures the data that you send and receive. Every time VPN mode is active on your Android, a small icon will indicate its availability on your notification bar. Underlying WiFi Assistant is a restrictive list of open WiFi networks selected by Google. Hence, WiFi Assistant will not connect to every single open network in your area but only to a select few. Although, Google has lifted this restriction off its VPN mode from September this year thereby allowing VPN connections to open networks outside of Wi-Fi assistant, there are still some limitations.
What Are the Limitations of Google VPN?
So far as security is concerned, Google VPN seems to work if your online activity is limited to Facebook, emails and YouTube. However, Google VPN does not act as an anonymizer. Sadly, location restrictions on content still apply and this very fact raises questions about the nature of security that Google VPN provides behind the scenes.
Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.
Although WiFi Assistant's VPN mode is available for use at will on open WiFi networks, it enables automatically only on Google's selected list of open networks. There is no option to turn off VPN mode, but starting September, there is an option to enable VPN mode on manually connected open networks. WiFi Assistant comes with its own set of restrictions too. Whether you will be connected to a particular open WiFi network is decided entirely by WiFi Assistant. However, if you make your own decision to connect to a WiFi network, WiFi assistant will not consider that network for future automatic connections thereon. You will have to do a forget for that network on your Android and to let WiFi assistant manage the connection once again. Understandably, all these restrictions affect your user experience with Google VPN.
How Secure is Google VPN?
There is a lot of information that Google has made public about Google WiFi assistant. There is, however, an equal lot of information that it has not disclosed yet. Here is a comparison chart explaining the black and white, and the gray areas in Google VPN.
- Enables automatically on open WiFi networks
- Encrypt your online activity on open WiFi connections
- Can be enabled on manually connected open networks
- No information on the encryption strength
- The connection protocol has been kept a secret
- How WiFi assistant selects a list of networks is unknown
- Your location is still tracked, you are not anonymous
- The VPN cannot be disabled manually
- Always-on VPN mode Interferes with VPN clients
If you are serious about privacy and security, the chart above makes it clear that the privacy offered by Android's VPN mode is laughable at best. However, some privacy is better than no privacy and Google VPN does offer some basic level privacy. This philosophy is particularly handy when connecting to open WiFi networks at coffee shops, on the ferry crossing, at hotels or at your favorite gym. However, it is in no way a replacement for a good VPN service.
This Reddit thread mentions a direct response from Project Fi support on the encryption standard. There are also some speculations about the underlying protocol, but Google is yet to disclose clear information on this. Overall, Google VPN is something that people can use over open WiFi networks for the lack of a proper VPN service on their Android devices. But the days is quite far when it will replace a good VPN service.