Project Fi promises privacy with Google-run VPN


Internet providers and wireless carriers, by necessity, can see the traffic coming and going to your phone. Some companies have better privacy policies than others, but Google’s Project Fi can’t make a blanket policy — that’s because the carrier doesn’t control its own network, and instead piggybacks off of companies like T-Mobile and Sprint.

To solve that, Project Fi is launching a new option today that allows subscribers to route all of their traffic through a Google-run VPN. That means all traffic will be encrypted as it goes out and returns to your phone, so T-Mobile and Sprint won’t be able to see what you’re up to.

But your traffic will be going to Google’s servers, so Google will be able to see what you’re visiting. In a blog post, the company says that “your traffic isn’t tied to your Google account or phone number,” and in an email, a Google representative confirmed the company doesn’t tie the data to “any other user identifiers” either. The representative also said that traffic that is otherwise encrypted, such as by HTTPS, wouldn’t be readable by Google.

Project Fi does “not store the traffic coming through the VPN,” according to the representative. However, Google can still makes use of the data in a small number of ways, including to improve the VPN product and other Fi network services and to monitor for abuse. The representative noted that Google would also “comply with applicable laws and regulations, or as required by court or government orders,” which would be relevant if ordered to monitor a specific person.

Image: Google

Ultimately, you’re bargaining that Google’s oversight of your data is going to offer more privacy than those of the mobile carriers’ whose networks you’re really using. It’s entirely possible that Google’s will be, but explicit privacy policies are important when it comes to VPN services, given how much trust is involved.

Because you have to route your data through Google, you’ll also end up using more mobile data — Google estimates about 10 percent extra, which isn’t great if you’re concerned about data use. VPNs typically slow down your service, too, since your connecting has to be routed through a third party as it leaves and returns to your phone. A representative said the VPN “closely matches the speed of a user’s connection,” but that “some users may experience slight slowdowns,” particularly if they are farther away from Google’s VPN servers.

It’s an inelegant solution to a unique problem. But it is at least some sort of solution, and Project Fi is offering it at no additional cost to subscribers. The company already uses this VPN to protect traffic when you’re automatically connected to an open Wi-Fi network (something Project Fi does to reduce mobile data costs), now the option is just being opened up for use on all traffic to and from your phone.

The feature is supposed to start rolling out in beta later this week to phones on Android Pie. Project Fi also says that its improved handoff between Wi-Fi and cellular, so that poor Wi-Fi connections now switch over faster, cutting down time without a connection “by up to 40 percent.”