How to Use Android’s Wi-Fi Assistant to Safely Connect to Public Wi-Fi Networks (and Save Data)

By Cameron Summerson on October 13th, 2016

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If you aren’t using Android’s “Wi-Fi Assistant”, you should. It automatically connects to known open Wi-Fi networks, and secures them with a Google VPN. That way you save data while also keeping attackers from accessing your data.

Wi-FI Assistant was originally released with Project Fi, but now it’s available for all Nexus devices running 5.1 and above (in these countries). If your device has it, there’s no reason not to turn it on now.

What Is Wi-Fi Assistant?

Wi-Fi Assistant aims to do two things: save you data, and keep you safe. It automatically connects you to open Wi-Fi networks it knows, which uses less data on your phone. Seems simple, right?

However, public networks are inherently insecure. It’s easy for evildoers to use things like packet sniffers to pull your data out of the sky while it’s transmitting—they just need to be connected to the same network as you. Anything that you send can be detected, like passwords or other private information. So that network at the coffee shop isn’t very safe to connect to–unless you have a VPN.

So, whenever Wi-Fi Assistant connects to an open network, it also connects to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) managed by Google, routing all of your traffic through a private, digital tunnel. Since the VPN is encrypted, your data is protected from potential attacks. This way, you can treat many open Wi-Fi networks the same way you could treat your mobile connection or home network—feel free to log in, order things, or do whatever else you want. Your data is as safe as it can be.

Sadly, it doesn’t work on all public networks—it’ll only automatically connect to ones it trusts. You’ll see a key icon show up next to the Wi-Fi icon if Wi-FI Assistant has secured you.

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If you don’t see that key, it’s probably because you manually connected to that network yourself—in which case Wi-Fi Assistant won’t protect you. You can try disconnecting from it to see if Wi-Fi Assistant automatically connects to and secures it. If it doesn’t, you can re-connect manually, just know that the VPN isn’t running.

How to Set Up Google Wi-Fi Assistant

Like I said earlier, Wi-Fi Assistant is only available on Nexus devices running Android 5.1 or higher. It’s also region locked to the US, Canada, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden, and the UK. If both of those requirements are met, read on.

Once Wi-Fi Assistant is available on your device, it may notify you once you’re connected to a public network. But you don’t have to wait for it—you can enable it yourself beforehand.

First, jump into the Settings menu. Pull the notification shade down a couple of times, then tap the cog icon.

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From there, scroll down to the “Google” entry. Tap it.

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Close to the bottom of the list there’s an entry titled “Networking.” That’s what you’re looking for.

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The Networking menu is short and sweet: there’s a toggle for Wi-Fi Assistant, along with an “Advanced” setting. Go ahead and toggle Wi-Fi Assistant first—we’ll look at the Advanced menu in a moment.

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Once Wi-Fi Assistant is toggled on, a warning of sorts should pop up, basically telling you what the service does. Read over it if you want, then tap “Got it.”

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That’s that; Wi-Fi Assistant will do its thing for you from now on. Whenever you’re connected to a network that Google Wi-Fi Assistant wants to secure, a notification will show up.

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In case you’re curious about the “advanced” section, there’s only one thing in this menu: the option to let Wi-Fi Assistant manage saved networks, so in the future it will automatically connect to networks that you’ve already used. I can think of no reason to turn this feature off, so let’s leave it alone. I mean, you can disable it if you want. It’s your phone, after all.

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And that’s pretty much that.

Cameron Summerson is a die-hard Android fan, Chicago Bulls fanatic, metalhead, and cyclist. When he's not pounding keys on the 'net, you can find him spending time with his wife and kids, chugging away on the 6-string, spinning on the streets, or watching the Bulls while yelling at the TV.

  • Published 10/13/16
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